SIFF Film Review – Alone
As the title of the Korean psychodrama Alone suggests, its protagonist is one isolated man – emotionally distant, physically by himself, and probably insane.
We’re introduced to Su-min through his eyes, his arms flailing about a blood-spattered apartment; soon thereafter, he’s choked out by ski-mask-wearing gang-members. He awakens naked, in the harshly-lit nighttime city, to wander through narrow alleyways and staircases, a twisty depopulated landscape populated by insanity and violence. The people he meets may be strangers, family, friends, or facets of himself: the depressed mother, the abusive father, the boy with a knife, the reluctant girlfriend, the only cab driver on the main road… Mostly, he just walks alone, blank-faced and crazy-eyed, through a linear path on an inconsistent timeline.
At its best, Alone is an expressionistic retreat into madness, a nightmarish evocation of being lost late in one’s thoughts on almost-familiar streets. Unfortunately, the hypnotic effect peaks midway point, and the slopes on either side are fairly rocky.
The opening scenes described above distractingly share significant overlap with the aesthetics of many AAA-budget video games: first-person and third-person over-the-shoulder visual perspectives; long stretches of uninterrupted walking; endless empty generic corridors of conspicuously-closed doors; sudden assaults by faceless thugs; the protagonist frequently losing conciseness and waking up at check-point-type locations; expository conversations rarely involving more than two people. A recurrent cell phone ringtone recalls the fairy fountain music from The Legend of Zelda. Mid-distance camera angles that visually isolate Su-min on his path from Point A to Point B recall the survival horror series Silent Hill and Resident Evil, as do the eerie atmosphere and themes of madness.
While these choices effectively underscore the protagonist’s isolation, they also feel a bit tainted, as in many games endless walks and closed doors are intertwined with filler and weak narrative structures. Hardcore Henry’s (2016) ambition was to replicate gaming’s more puerile thrills in the form of a puerile action film. The tone in Alone is dour. The connections between it’s aesthetics and certain video games are unmistakable, but neither explicit enough to feel fully-realized nor attempts at commentary. They feel uncanny in ways more annoying than unnerving.
In contrast to the first half’s atmosphere of seclusion, the final acts are leaden with embarrassingly literal proclamations. The protagonist actually states that “these alleyways…seem like the wrinkles in my brain.” Even if we’re not to trust what he says of his life, his past, and why he came to city, his questionably-reliable ramblings are long, expository monologues composed of clichés and genre conventions. A scene in which he spends several minutes speaking directly to a cameraman (revealed to be…spoiler alert…himself!) barely registers as attempting to combine story with visuals. His speech about his profession, for better or worse, is so unrealistic as to be impossible to read literally.
To the film’s credit, it doesn’t appear to be trying to be a puzzle-box with a singular explanation for its audience to decipher. Neither, however, is it satisfyingly tethered to any stakes within the ‘reality’ of the film’s world. In this respect, it shares a central flaw with fellow Seattle International Film Festival entrant Vanity (2015) – with a protagonist this socially isolated, what does it matter what happens to him? Alone intermittently gets us lost in an urban labyrinth of isolation and madness, but just as often forgets to lead us somewhere interesting narratively.