A Single Rider (2017): Introduction to Korean Movies

Professor A.K.I.A presents
A Single Rider (2017): Introduction to Korean Movies
#LeeByungHun, #KongHyoJin, #이병헌 #공효진 #싱글라이더 

Come onboard!
“A Single Rider” (2017) is an “Indie” drama starring famous actor Lee Byung-Hun and starlet Kong Hyo-Jin. Even with such stars, the Korean movie “A Single Rider” (2017) has to be considered an “indie” movie because of its small foot print within the industry although the quality of film making is a level above what one would commonly see on the festival circuit. At least, the cinematography and editing is definitely done by a professional. The same cannot be said of many indie movies that cast stars doing a friend a favor.

From the title “A Single Rider” (2017), what do you imagine this movie is?
No it is not a western! But I get why that genre would come to mind. “Single Rider” is quite similar to “Lone rider” which evokes the image of the isolate male in a desolate land populated with tumbleweeds. And there are some thematic commonality between this movie and the later period westerns.

The Plot
The plot of “A Single Rider” (2017) follows a middle aged and middle management “Upper middle class” investment broker whose firm just went bankrupt and lost all of its clients’ money. As a result, he is going to lose the small amount of wealth and social status he was able to accumulate in addition to the guilt of losing clients’ money. All he has left is his wife and small son who he hasn’t seen for 2 years because he sent them to Australia for his son’s educational purposes while he --- “Goose dad” --- worked.

A man as a Goose
You see…Lee Byung-Hun’s character falls into the category of men Koreans call “Goose dad.” The breed of men who are separated from their family and living alone in order to educate their young children overseas  usually in a country populated with English speaking Caucasians. This is because the education system in Korea is seen to be failing and inadequate.  In “A Single Rider” (2017), that place is Australia. You know Crocodile Dundee land! Such a paradise! The mothers usually accompany their children --- boarding schools especially for young children are not favored--- and thus the marriages commonly disintegrates overtime.

At the end of his rope, the Goose dad goes to see them. We basically follow Lee Byung-Hun, who plays the husband, silently “stalk” his wife played by Kong Hyo-Jin and his son in the sunny suburbia of Sydney Australia. In simple words, the movie is basically a stoic and somewhat meditative examination of the remnants of a middle class Korean male’s life. However, those remnants maybe far lighter in value than he previously assumed.

“A Single Rider” (2017) is one of those movies that are made to open a dialogue on a subject matter but don’t have a conclusion to present. In this case, the topic is the collapse of the “Korean middle class male” social architypes. By this, I mean the manner in which Korean males should aspire to live told according to mainstream Korean society. This includes the goose dad architype.

One gets a good education. (This is increasingly getting expensive)
Work to rise to middle management. (Fewer of these jobs exist)
Spend the money you earn to then educate your child in a manner. (increasing being shown to be ineffective in producing a return both in terms of the child’s financial future and happiness.)
Then rely on your child’s income and generosity for retirement. (Not likely possible now)

Through the turmoil of modern Korean society, these architypes awe breaking down and men are left with nothing after half their expected lifespan has past. This is the overarching topic that this movie is presenting for a discussion.

Outside of Korea, this is nothing new. There are actually many Hollywood movies with similar topics in the 90s before, once again, they got pushed underground with the start of the 21st century. Mainstream society decided to go the male vilification route instead rather than trying to get to a solution. Well there was “The Descendants” (2011) starring George Clooney but more the exception that proves the rule. It is less raw and less socially honest like such movie as “American Beauty” (1999) or even “Falling Down” (1993). Korean cinema is just now touching on the topic. The thriller movie “Bluebeard” (2017) starring Cho Jin-Woong touches on similar territory. Both movies were released basically at the same time --- Spring 2017. A coincidence?

So, does “A Single Rider” (2017) do a good job at presenting this topic?
The movie, while competently made, has problems. First, the film making is too journeyman like especially in the area of editing. I kept noticing edits that provide information not needed for the audience as if they had to pad out this 90 minute or so long movie. As a result, the movie could feel long relative to the plot which is just the protagonist walking around and seeing how people are doing without him. Okay a less charming and heart lifting version of “It's a Wonderful Life” (1946) I suppose

Second, the casting is a mixed bag. Overall, the acting is decent. Kong Hyo-Jin is lovely as usual. She gives a more grounded performance than her usual manic “Meg Ryan” TV character persona. However, she is still interesting to see on the big screen. Even the native Australian actors don’t suck which is not common for a Korean movie. Someone actually paid to get professional --- albeit unknown ---actors. However, Lee Byung-Hun is not as interesting has he should be for this type of role which rely heavily on the actor’s screen presence. Lee Byung-Hun while a decent actor is in the same mold as Ben Afflect. You have to give him a lot to do. Being a stoic/silent character whose main tool is emoting is not his strong suit. Not an actor who can make just walking around town alone look interesting. This can drag the movie a bit until he is given an “acting” moment near the end.

Third, coming out of the movie, I wasn’t sure what the point of the movie was other than Korean men and to a lesser degree all Koreans are screwed. I mean Australia --- compared to how Korea is portrayed--- is portrayed as this bright and sunny paradise where Koreans want to escape to. Australia is great but most of the land is inhabitable and full with things that want to kill you. So, is Korea really a hell hole? Is that what the movie wanted to say? The movie needed something more for its closing and I think the movie stumbled there. And finally… there is the “controversial” element of the movie. Wait for the *spoiler* section.

So, is “A Single Rider” (2017) a watch?
Well not many Korean are actually seeing this movie and I do think it is a shame. While not a page turner and not a masterpiece of introspection, 90 minutes spent on getting some insight into the issues of Korean society is time not wasted especially since it is not a chore to get through and you can see Kong Hyo-Jin in a lovely white dress. Worth the price of admission.


“I see dead people”

Lee Byung-Hun’s character literally “haunts” his family. The move pulls off a “The Sixth Sense” (1999). Throughout the movie, there are hints ---mostly in the awkwardness of the character interactions ---that make you think “The Sixth Sense” (1999) but wish you’re just imagining it. But then …. “I see dead people”….

“A Single Rider” (2017) doesn’t handle this twist very well as the sudden reveal doesn’t totally congeal very well with what we previously were shown. The tonal shift is abrupt. In addition, this twist doesn’t really add to the subject matter other than increasing the melodrama. The take is a tragedy on its own! The movie didn’t really need a supernatural twist like in “The Sixth Sense” (1999). The M. Night Shyamalan movie was a thriller while “A Single Rider” (2017) is a drama. In fact, it does somewhat lessen the truthfulness of the topic the movie is presenting. So, that is somewhat of a shame.


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