Full of high hopes and ambitions for the future, Soo-nam’s (Lee Jung-hyun (이정현) expectations are rapidly shattered in quick succession after graduating high school. Armed with already-outdated skills, Soo-nam is forced to work in accounting at a factory where ironic misfortune leads to meeting her future husband, while even greater calamities that ensue take them both on downward spiral. Yet despite all odds there is a glimmer of hope. A redevelopment proposal offers the solution to all Soo-nam’s woes…but how far is she willing to go to ensure its success?
From the moment the film opens, director Ahn Gooc-jin (안국진) establishes Alice in Earnestland as a wonderfully quirky and uniquely surreal dark comedy of a desperate woman on the edge. Divided into chapters while relaying Soo-nam’s tragi-comic life via a series of flashbacks, the film is – as the Jeonju Film Festival describes it – something of “a cruel fairytale,” depicting the humorously twisted fate that befalls the optimistic heroine as she endeavours to create a life of dignity. Director Ahn initially infuses the story with enthusiastic kineticism through rapid camerawork and editing that serve to generate a lot of fun and intrigue to the tale, while Soo-min’s perseverance – and her delightfully charismatic innocence aptly conveyed by actress Lee Jung-hyun – in the face of such terrible irony is particularly endearing.
While at first Alice in Earnestland entertains through a quirky balance of melancholy humour and visual dynamism, the story loses its way towards the conclusion of chapter one by delving too deeply into the dark terrain with which it flirts, and as a result struggles for the remainder of the film to achieve the comedy buoyancy that initially made it so promising. The film rapidly eschews the eccentricities that made it so appealing to become mired down in local politics and enter particularly dark territory, as the jovial tone spirals into scenes of physical assault, torture, and other forms of abuse, and while director Ahn consistently attempts to inject black comedy into the narrative to lighten the mood, the macabre events ultimately outweigh them.
The final two chapters are of merit however as the darkly morbid situations allow director Ahn to take comical jabs at pertinent issues in Korean society, particularly in regards to issues of finance, health care and redevelopment. The narrative sets up the obstacles challenging Soo-nam as people who prioritise wealth and power, and the film works well as an underdog story as she independently takes on all challenges armed with nothing but an optimistic smile and a drive to succeed. It is largely due to Soo-nam’s endearing qualities that the final act, which flounders somewhat laboriously in a redevelopment scandal, is compelling enough to keep audiences interested until the credits roll.
Alice in Earnestland begins as a quirky and surreal dark comedy by director Ahn Gooc-jin, who initially infuses the film with an infectious vibrancy before the narrative tone spirals into darker, more macabre territory and spends the resulting running time struggling to capture the promising comic buoyancy of the opening. Yet actress Lee Jung-hyun’s charismatic performance as optimistic heroine Soo-nam is delightful, and is enough to keep audiences engaged until the credits roll.