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‘Alienoid’ (review)

Alienoid is a Korean science-fiction fantasy picture directed by Choi Dong-Hoon (Assassination) and starring Ryu Jun-yeol (Believer), Kim Woo-bin, and Kim Tae-ri (The Handmaiden). Released earlier this year in South Korea, the film is now getting an American theatrical release from Well Go USA.

Alienoid is a spectacle, a time-hopping action-comedy with aliens, magical powers, and time travelers. It is also a film that feels like it needs a prequel, a sequel, and a concurrent comic book series to explain exactly what is going on.  It combines two different narratives in two different eras, and neither one feels like a coherent film unto itself.

It also feels like the first Korean film I’ve seen that’s drawing heavily from the MCU, particularly Guardians of the Galaxy and Loki, in both conception and tone.

That MCU influence opens it up to a criticism I have previously leveled, perhaps unfairly but urgently from my cultural perspective, at much of the triple-A cinema from Mainland China in the last ten years.

Foreign markets cannot possibly match the slick sheen and incredible production values of the Disney behemoth and so rather than sticking to the kinds of escapist films they’ve always excelled at they end up producing films that with all their big budgets feel cheap, because their reach exceeds their grasp in terms of big budget computer effects.

Half the plot focuses on alien robots (Kim Woo-bin in dual roles) posing as human simulacra who spend their time as interdimensional Marshalls for escaped alien criminals who can hop into human bodies.

The two robots on a mission to 14th century Korea find and rescue a human infant whom they end up raising. The other half takes place a few years later in the 14th century where a wuxia style hero with a magical fan meets a beautiful woman who can control lightning and the two must fend off aliens in disguise. The two halves eventually come together, but the film is just one part of a planned serial and so we have the curious combination of having too many story threads and not enough story, because we get no true conclusion.

If that previous paragraph was somewhat exhausting to read, dear reader, I assure it was no less to write and a great deal more to watch.

The action is satisfying but it feels like more competently staged versions of MCU action sequences in one half, while the other half deliberately seems to be evoking the kind of over the top wuxia action features that flooded the market after the incredible success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon almost twenty years ago.

It lacks the grit, the power, and the realism of many of the transformative Korean action thrillers that have been made in that time. Just last year Korea produced The Swordsman, one of the best wuxia films in the last twenty years but the action on display here is like a desert in the Poconos– miles away.

The performances are uniformly good.

I think the real standouts are Kim Woo-bin as the dual robot cops and Kim Tae-ri who really enlivens the wuxia sequences with her calm assurance and delicate beauty. There’s also a lot to like about the formal direction: Choi has been at the helm of several very interesting Korean action-thrillers and here he shows assurance and style with the big budget.

I acknowledge that for a Korean audience this sort of big budget, multi-part, cinematic serial is a source of pride, a gauntlet thrown down that there’s nothing their domestic film industry cannot do.

I simply wanted a more authentic dish rather than their interpretation of what the Americans like to eat.

2 out of 5 stars.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Ahn Soo-Hyun, Choi Dong-Hun
Written and Directed by Choi Dong-Hun
Starring Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Woo-bin, Kim Tae-ri,
So Ji-sub, Yum Jung-ah, Jo Woo-jin, Kim Eui-sung


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