“There’s so much we don’t know about each other” a sister exclaims as if only just realising precisely how estranged they may have become this current visit home itself overshadowed by a kind of awkwardness that she doesn’t yet quite understand. Sangok (Lee Hye-young), the heroine of Hong Sang-soo’s latest meditation on existential dread In Front of Your Face (당신얼굴 앞에서, Dangsineolgul apeseo), is determined to live defiantly in the moment, shedding both past and future for the intensity of the now while learning to rejoice in the beauty of life if perhaps also burdened by ancient regrets, broken connections, and the ironic promise of an unobtainable future.
After many years living alone in the US, former actress Sangok has returned to stay with her sister Jeongok (Jo Yoon-hee) and meet with a director who is interested in casting her in his latest film. According to her sister, Sangok ran off with a man she barely knew and followed him to America where she worked as a travel agent though more lately it seems barely getting by with a job in a liquor store. Jeongok waxes on about a swanky new apartment complex in a tranquil area of natural beauty, suggesting her sister move back to Korea but surprised and alarmed when she confesses she has no savings or property. “That’s how everyone lives there” she explains, “but it seems a lot of people here have money” noticing perhaps how much the city has changed since she’s been away while hinting that her life in America may have been in its own way disappointing.
Sangok seems lonely, tired, a little distracted and perhaps anxious in the way she ties and reties the belt on her mac often placing a hand on her stomach for comfort. The sisters teeter on the brink of an argument about distance, unreturned letters, and whose fault it is they aren’t as close as they might have been but pull back from it wisely avoiding unnecessary confrontation in favour of maintaining the pleasant atmosphere. Yet there are also parts of Sangok’s story that don’t quite add up. A pair of women (Seo Young-hwa & Lee Eun-mi), appearing eerily like the cottage core cat-lovers from The Woman Who Ran, stop the sisters in a park recognising Sangok from her previous life as an actress decades ago. Jeongok is puzzled, sure that Sangok only appeared on TV once though the director, Song Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo), later descends into a reverie recalling the effect her early performances had on him as a young student in the early ‘90s.
Hong pulls one of his usual tricks on us, repeating his opening scene with Sangok dressed in an identical outfit on her sister’s sofa if this time covered with a blanket leading us to wonder if everything we’ve just seen is only a dream. As it happens she soon gets a phone call to let us know it’s not, one which elicits from her an ironic laugh as the new hope she might have been given is suddenly crushed by another Hongian unreliable man talking too big a game even if this time the culprit is baiju rather than the familiar little green bottles of despair. Taking advantage of his selfishly postponing their lunch date, Sangok pays a visit back to her childhood home which has since become a boutique only the garden remaining the same if now dwarfed by the surrounding buildings of an ever developing city. “The memories in my heart are so heavy” she sighs, “I don’t know why I came here”, later embracing a little girl who may or may not live there now as if embracing the ghost of her childhood self.
The meeting with the director turns out to be depressingly predictable, he having “borrowed” a cafe named “novel” from female “friend” while sending his assistant away periodically Sangok assumes because he wants to get her alone. Ironically enough she describes his films as like short stories, bemused as to why he’s so keen to hire a middle-aged former actress but finally bares her soul explaining what it is that she carries around with her on this rare trip to Seoul. Reciting small mantras to herself in the form of tiny prayers she tries to stay in the moment, reminded that every day is “grace” and that life itself is beautiful, claiming that as long as she can see whatever’s in front of her face then she’s not scared of anything. Reminders of the pandemic hover in the background with vague references to the way things are “especially now”, the atmosphere of dread and anxiety throwing Sangok’s philosophy into stark relief as she vows to live defiantly in the moment, rejoicing in life’s absurdities but also in its small comforts as she wonders what her sleeping sister dreams, shaking off her her existential vertigo to gaze out of a high-rise window.
In Front of Your Face screens in San Diego on Oct. 30 & Nov. 1 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in London will also have the opportunity to see the film as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival at Picturehouse Central on 13th November.
Original trailer (English subtitles)