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NYAFF 2017 Review: ‘A Single Rider’ Offers a Bittersweet Look at One Man’s Life

2017’s New York Asian Film Festival runs June 30th through July 16th.
By  · Published on July 4th, 2017

2017’s New York Asian Film Festival runs June 30th through July 16th.

Kang Jae-hoon (Lee Byung-hun) sits watching home videos of his wife and son, and it’s clear that while they’re far from home — they’ve moved temporarily to Australia to learn English — they’re close to his heart. Unfortunately for Kang though it’s a revelation that may have come too late. He’s spent the last several years prioritizing his career, and as he heads into work he discovers the company is crumbling. Fraud and mismanagement have led to ruin, not just for the company and its employees, but for thousands of everyday citizens who trusted them with their financial futures. With nothing holding him in South Korea anymore he heads to Sydney to reclaim his family only to discover that they might be better off in his continued absence.

A Single Rider is a story about regret and how it can only be used as motivation if you act in time. Lee Joo-young‘s tender debut captures the feeling of defeat with an aching reality, and while a later narrative shift threatens to disrupt the effect the film’s heartfelt lead performance carries viewers across the finish line.

Kang’s wife, Soo-jin (Kong Hyo-jin), and son, Jin-woo (Yeong Yoo-jin), are on an extended trip that has already been extended a few more times, and when he sees her relaxing with a local man (Jack Campbell) the message seems clear. He spends the next few days spying on her, exploring the house when they’re out, and slowly realizing that as far as they’re concerned he left a long time ago. The film’s strongest when it follows this thread as both Lee Byung-hun and Kong reveal the fragility of human connection in their characters’ shared silences.

A second story develops alongside it though when Kang meets a young Korean girl named Ji-na (Sohee) after she’s robbed in Sydney. Swindled and drugged, she’s lost both her money and her passport, and Kang sees this as an opportunity towards a minor redemption for all those swindled by his company back home. Their time together takes on a more traditional narrative from the regret-filled longing occupying the main thread, but while it can’t compete in emotional power the girl’s tale leads to an interesting denouement. It’ll be a divisive one to be sure, but there’s a weight to their story all the same.

How far you go with the film will undoubtedly rest at least in part on the shoulders of Lee Byung-hun, and happily he’s more than up to the challenge. The past several years have seen him focused on action films and darker tales, but his early career saw him engaging in Korean melodrama on a regular basis. His strength with the former is obvious — just watch I Saw the Devil, A Bittersweet Life, or The Good the Bad the Weird for ample evidence that he thrives on the intense and physical — but he does great work here with a man who’s spent too long internalizing his emotions and is now paying the price.

A Single Rider is a gently affecting film that moves from melancholy to acceptance with an honest grace. Take its lesson and learn from it before you too are forced to fly to Australia alone.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.