By Pierce Conran
A few months after the explosive period spy thriller The Age of Shadows from genre maestro Kim Jee-woon, Warner Bros is back with its second Korean production A Single Rider. Though both films share star Lee Byung-hun, who appears as an extended cameo in Kim’s work, A Single Rider, from debut filmmaker Lee Zoo-yong, is a far smaller work with only a handful of characters and which is largely concerned the theme of regret.
Lee plays a top fund manager whose life falls to pieces when his company loses all its clients’ savings. He decides to take a trip to Australia, where his wife lives with their son, in order for him to learn English. Upon his arrival, the husband discovers that his wife, a former violinist whose musical ambitions have begun to reawaken, has gotten very close with her Australian neighbor. During his trip, he also tries to help a young Korean girl who has been swindled out her savings during her work abroad stay in the country.
A Single Rider doesn’t exactly break new ground but its understated look at a man reconsidering what his life means in a society consumed with achievement is refreshing, precisely because it avoids tackling too many issues or devolving into hysterics, as many similar works have. Lee Zoo-young, a graduate of the Korea National University of Arts, mounts her debut with measured and quiet grace and knows exactly how to get the best out of her stars. Her choice to set most of the film Down Under proves a clever one, as the comfort and peace of suburbia lifestyle in Australia offers a way for us to see into the characters without being lost in the clutter of a more stressful Korean environment.
Prior to becoming the global superstar that he is today, appearing in Hollywood action tentpoles and major Korean thrillers, Lee Byung-hun was largely famous for being a star of melodramas, both in theaters and on television. For the first time since 2006’s Once a Summer, Lee has returned to the realm where he started his career with A Single Rider. However, unlike the romantic leads he was accustomed to, his role here calls on him to deliver the most introspective and subtle work of his career. It’s an expressive performance and a great showcase for Lee’s range.
Though her role is quite small, Kong Hyo-jin follows her terrific part in E.oni’s kdnap thriller Missing with another impressive turn. Her character is the suffering, silent type, and like Lee she demonstrates control over her mannerisms and allows us to peer in when through the occasional chinks in her calm exterior. She’s far more famous for her TV and modeling work but given her consistently strong parts in smaller film roles one hopes we’ll see more of her on the big screen in future. A Single Rider also marks the fifth different women director that Kong has worked with, surely a record for a major Korean star.
The film also fits in with the recent run of Korean films dealing with the rampant corruption of the haves of society at the expense of the have-nots. Lee was last seen in the big-budget film Master, in which he also plays someone in the finance industry who swindles normal people out of their life savings, though unlike the ponzi scheme mastermind of the prior work, here his character may not have been aware of the consequences of his actions, or at the very least may have forced his conscience to look the other way.
The regret he feels for his actions is what leads him into the subplot of the young Korean woman, played adequately by Kpop star Ahn So-hee, who can’t hope to measure up to the film’s seasoned lead. Helping here recover her savings may offer some form of absolution for Lee’s character.
A Single Rider is likely to be appreciated by its intended audience, even if it’s not a very big one these days, as feature melodrama (as opposed to that seen on TV) seems to have lost favor with Korean viewers. However, due to its delicate tone and slight narrative, even fans may not recall this quiet little work long after seeing it.
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