“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
In her debut film Alice in Earnestland, Ahn Goocjin pays homage to Lewis Carroll’s book, conjuring a dark, alien world that satirises modern Korean society. Soo-nam (Lee Jung-hyun) is a modern day Alice trying to negotiate her way around a society hostile to its working class. The film is told in chapters, and its first chapter ‘Psychotherapy’ is especially hilarious. Before meeting Soo-nam (Alice), we are introduced to Kyung-sook (Seo Young-hwa), a local counsellor. She sits in her seat staring blankly at her clients, and the shots flick expertly between her bored face, her client in tears, and an image of her two waste paper baskets, positioned side by side; one is full of toilet paper rolls, the other is full of toilet paper that the clients have been using to blow their nose.
Immediately, it is evident that the South Korea portrayed here is far from the South Korea ridiculed in Psy’s 2015 hit song ‘Gangnam Style’. The rapid economic growth and industrialisation of South Korea since the Korean War has given rise to the simultaneous emergence of a new middle class and burgeoning of its working class. It is this growing class divide that Ahn Goocjin so deftly lambasts. Soo-nam’s introduction of herself to Kyung-sook is told in an exaggerated origin story style; she traces the seminal decision of her life back to that moment in high school when she had to choose whether to become “one of the elite” by going to university, or whether to work in a factory for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, despite going to university, Soo-nam ends up working in a factory anyway—her beliefs in social mobility and the meritocracy proven to be naïve.
As it turns out, Alice in Earnestland is one of few films billed as a ‘black comedy’ that live up to their promise. It’s a hilarious film, provided one has a keen sense for the absurd. Its depiction of Soo-nam’s relationship with her husband, Gyu-jung (Lee Hae-young) is heartbreaking and touching—he feels the pressure of wanting to provide for her and be useful, despite being disabled by a workplace injury, and she feels the pressure of wanting to make her husband happy. Yet, the depiction of their relationship is so wrought that their plight is rendered as delightfully amusing. Gyu-jung is not just injured, he chronically injures himself—he is deaf, then he chops off his finger, then he drills a nail through his hand. The logical conclusion of this is his suicide. Ironically, his penchant for injuring himself, though born of an earnest desire to work hard so that he can buy a house with his wife (he dumbly insists that he does not want his children to grow up as he did, and even wants to forgo his cochlear implant surgery to save money), renders him so physically incompetent that he hangs himself from the house that Soo-nam worked four jobs for nine years to buy for them. And yet, even his suicide is steeped in irony—he ends up comatose, racking up a hospital bill for Soo-nam who remains determined to take him to the seaside, even if he happens to be brain dead and hooked up to life support at the time.
There is a wonderful scene where Soo-nam gazes up at a billboard of a married couple buying a house—the modern Korean dream. In the end, she wants this so badly, it turns out she is willing to kill. Some viewers may feel that Soo-nam is an underdeveloped character, perhaps discombobulated by the experience of watching a film that feels like a cross between the films of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. She is a combination rarely seen: the quirky, well-meaning heroine with a cute bob cut as the violent, unforgiving avenger. She slits a man’s throat, cries about it, slits another man’s throat, then takes her comatose husband to the beach.
Alice in Earnestland is an excellent film; a biting critique of the inequalities and the sexism in modern Korean society that vacillates between graphically violent revenge film and cute absurdism. Ahn Goocjin’s style is on point and on trend—she confidently plays with unconventional shots, transitions and sequencings in a way that allows her to experiment without alienating a mainstream audience. Her plot is tight and jumps expertly back and forth, its fragmented timeline rendering its delightful plot twists all the more surprising.