In Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, a suicidal man glimpses an alternate world in which he was never born, ultimately realizing that he touched the lives of so many people—simply by existing. In a delightfully perverse twist, Lee Zoo-Young’s A Single Rider offers a very different vision for its distraught protagonist. What if your presence on this planet has been stifling, even destructive to those around you? And what if your absence would allow them the opportunity to flourish? These are the questions that drive this impressive directorial debut, the second Korean-language film to be produced by Warner Brothers (after 2016’s The Age of Shadows).
In the opening scenes, Kang Jae-Hoon (Lee Byung-Hun) is a passive observer. While at work, he uses his smartphone to watch a video of his family vacationing without him. Afterward, he lingers outside a volatile business meeting, content to observe the carnage from afar. Back at home, he uses Google Street View to check up on his wife Soo-Jin (Gong Hyo-Jin) and son Jin-Woo (Yang Yoo-Jin), both of whom he sent away to live in Australia. Without even noticing it, Jae-Hoon’s life has become something he views from a distance.
And yet, he is not as passive as he first appears. His sinking company has been busted for stock fraud, a crime in which Jae-Hoon was an active participant, bankrupting not just his clients, but his friends, relatives, and even himself. With his finances in shambles, Jae-Hoon books a flight from Seoul to Sydney, presumably expecting a heartfelt reunion with his wife and child.
But upon arrival in Australia, he makes a shocking discovery: Soo-Jin has become close friends with Kris (Jack Campbell), an Aussie construction worker with a young daughter of his own. Upon seeing them together, Jae-Hoon slinks away, choosing to spy on the would-be lovers rather than confront them face-to-face. Thus begins the captivating premise of A Single Rider, as the audience soon becomes implicated in the character’s voyeuristic tendencies.
At first glance, it seems Jae-Hoon’s family is quite happy without him. His son, now fluent in English, is enjoying his makeshift nuclear family. Soo-Jin, so dour and miserable in the film’s flashbacks, is now a woman full of humor and joy. A former violinist, she’s rediscovered her love of music and has applied to live in Australia on a permanent basis. Things, however, are not quite what they seem.
While sorting out his feelings, Jae-Hoon becomes entangled in the plight of Yoo Ji-Na (Train to Busan’s Sohee), a fellow Korean who came to Australia on a work visa but got conned out of her life’s savings—much like Jae-Hoon’s former clients. After some initial resistance, he decides to help her, possibly out of Korean solidarity but more likely as penance for his own crimes. But is redemption even possible? As with his hope of repairing the fractured marital bond, perhaps it’s a case of too little, too late.
On the big screen, Lee Byung-Hun has cultivated a very specific persona that has served him well over the years. His characters often fit a certain profile: calm, cool, collected, and almost always in control. In this film, Lee deftly explores the cracks in his picture-perfect, movie star facade, as Jae-Hoon—likely a master manipulator in his former life—must make sense of a world that is far beyond his control.
And while Jae-Hoon may be the protagonist, writer/director Lee Zoo-Young is careful to provide us with a window into Soo-Jin’s complicated, lonely world. In concert with the script and direction, Gong Hyo-Jin’s performance in the role registers as mature, sympathetic, and all-too-real. In truth, A Single Rider is as much a showcase for Gong as it is for her more famous co-star.
Although unrelated plot-wise, A Single Rider reminded me of Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men in the way that both films build toward more straightforward, confrontational endings only to subvert those expectations entirely. While some viewers may be disappointed with the twist at the end of A Single Rider, I thought it was well executed—and as someone who has seen the film twice, I can safely say it holds up on repeat viewings.
But the ending is not the reason to see this movie. As Raymond Chandler once wrote, a “really good mystery is one you would read even if you knew somebody had torn out the last chapter.” Along the same lines, I would assert that regardless of one’s reaction to the finale, A Single Rider is a haunting meditation on loneliness, guilt, and regret. What becomes of people who walk through this world silent and unseen? In what ways do our loved ones constrain us? In what ways do they set us free? The film offers no easy answers.