Single Rider, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/05/17 23:12:56

"A successful film about confronting shame and failure."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2017 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: It's been interesting to see Lee Byung-hun stretch a bit in his Korean roles in the past year, playing a decidedly non-dashing villain in "Master" and here playing a broken man who is more defined by his passive responses to failure than his usual man-of-action roles. It's the obvious draw for a movie that, while it uses a few familiar tricks, uses them to tell a understanding story of shame and regret.

Lee plays broker Kang Jae-hoon, a managing broker at Router Securities Corporation who finds himself left stunned when the company implodes, although as a member of upper management tells him, he's too smart not to have some idea things weren't on the up-and-up. That gnawing in the back of his mind is perhaps why he set his wife Lee Soo-jin (Kong Hyo-jin) and son Jin-woo (Eugene Young) up with a place in Australia for the past two years. Unable to face anybody in Seoul, he heads to Sydney with only the clothes on his back, not even bringing his phone, only to find them thriving a bit better than expected: "Sue" is more relaxed than she has been in years and has taken up the violin again, and the pair seem quite close to neighbor Kris (Jack Campbell) and his daughter Lucy (Annika Whiteley). Unable to bring himself to knock on the front door, Jae-hoon instead finds himself drawn to help "Gina" Yoo Ji-na (Ahn Sohee), who has been working off the books for two years on a tourist visa and has been robbed by the people who offered her a better exchange rate than a bank would on the money she has saved.

Park gives an impressively tragic performance, filled with regret and shame, and a palpable sense of his isolation in this foreign land as he can't bring himself to face his family. That isolation becomes especially important later on, and it initially evolves from a man realizing that he may have sold his soul, humbled and saddened by the idea that both the price and return were lower than expected. Lee spends the movie seeming hunched over, as if he was never quite able to fully straighten himself up from abasing himself before the customers he cheated, with the character's imperfect English a way to further focus his performance - he can't be arrogant in that language the way he can in flashbacks to the days before Soo-jin left Seoul. It's a fascinating and damning counterpart to how Kong Hyo-jin plays Soo-jin in those scenes compared to the rest of the movie - the audience sees the relaxed, revitalized Soo-jin first, and it makes the uptight character in the flashbacks hard to connect. It's telling that the mention of Jae-hoon is the only thing that makes her tense up in the present, but Kong never portrays that as bitterness, like Jae-hoon is what's keeping her from being happy with Kris or that trying to check in on him in Korea is a nuiscance. Jae-hoon has caused her pain, but she still cares, even though Lee can't show Jae-hoon taking much comfort from that.

On the flip side, he's got a great rapport with Sohee, the actress playing Gina, giving a hint of his paternal best self while she is a great, very likable kid in over her head. Gina's got a nifty arc, from optimism to desperation to a sort of can-do determination to a sort of wisdom that is still generous even in the face of her own bad experiences. Sohee plays Gina as relatively straightforward and not a reaction to Lee's Jae-hoon - she's not looking for a father or a lover in their interactions - and her confidence is charming but doesn't feel foolhardy even when it's leading her into bad situations.

Not necessarily complicated ones, though - writer/director Lee spends the bulk of her movie on small incidents that don't necessarily have grave import, but have some little nugget in them that is telling - the way Jae-hoon seems to just have a little bit of guilt as he consumes a well-prepared dinner in his tasteful apartment without joy, for instance. Lee pushes things forward at a relaxed pace, not feeling she has to make obvious major progress so long as there's something in each scene that the audience can mull over on its own; supplying small nudges is enough.

There are moments toward the end, when something that has likely been kicking around the heads of many in the audience is made explicit, that one may cringe at having already seen this in other films, and so definitively as to become a cliche that it takes a little nerve for someone to do it again. On the other hand, the film handles it well enough that this turn of events works as more than a novelty, and that Lee doesn't use flashbacks to reconcile things makes the bits where that's an option all the more interesting; she trusts the audience to see what she's been building, and there's a certain amount of grace to handling it that way rather than look for credit as to how much plot advancement has actually been in plain sight all the time.

It's a nice surprise of a film, even when it's not entirely a surprise.

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