“Really all of us are like that. We’re different when we go out” an older woman tries to console, ”you want to believe that the person you see at home is the real him”. The second remark may come out more cuttingly than she means it, unsubtly suggesting that really you never know anyone and the intimacy you might believe exists within a family is just a performance. The director at the centre of Hong Sang-soo’s Walk Up (탑, tab) is indeed several different people with several different women across multiple floors of a small building owned by an old friend, Mrs Kim (Lee Hye-young), with whom he repeatedly checks in across the space of several years.
Distance does seem to define Byungsoo’s (Kwon Hae-hyo) existence. When he turns up at Mrs Kim’s the first time, it’s with his daughter, Jung-soo (Park Mi-so), whom he later reveals he had not seen for five years. Jung-soo is there trying to make a connection, hoping Mrs Kim will take her on as an apprentice interior designer having experienced a moment of crisis on leaving art school and discovering that “art has nothing to do with money”. That’s also a problem that repeatedly plagues Byungsoo. During their conversation he’s called away to a meeting with a film producer, and later reveals that a project has fallen through after the funding was pulled at the last minute. Byungsoo embarks on a small rant about the commercialisation of the film industry in which artistic decisions are overruled by investors and no one really cares anymore about whether the film is any good only if it’s going to make money.
Jungsoo had described her father as “feminine” and “domesticated” during her early childhood before her parents’ divorce, explaining that he seemed to change after his film career took off. Where once he’d been content to spend time a home, suddenly he was out all the time partying with actresses. Jungsoo seems to regard this personality shift as a kind of betrayal, hurt by Mrs Kim’s suggestion that Byungsoo may have been repressing himself at home and the “real” Byungsoo was the one who liked to go out on the town. Then again, people can be many things at once and perhaps there’s no one “real” Byungsoo so much as there’s the Byungsoo of the moment. Sunhee (Song Seon-mi), another failed painter who now runs a restaurant on the second floor, panders to his wounded ego repeatedly telling him how much she likes his films, though mostly for the things they’re not, and that she hopes that he will go on making films for many years to come.
But it’s obvious that Byungsoo is deeply insecure, eventually drifting into an affair with Sunhee and living with her in the second floor apartment having taken a break from filmmaking due to ill health. He bristles when she tells him she’s going to visit a friend who slighted him on a previous occasion and tries to guilt her into not going, repeatedly texting her while she’s out to a degree that seems uncomfortably possessive and controlling. Yet he eventually ends up hugging his pillow and admitting to himself that perhaps he’s no good at relationships and deep down gets along better on his own. Even so, he later ends up with a third woman, an estate agent, who brings him wild ginseng to help with his health worries while he moves up to the studenty top floor flat which while barely big enough to turn around in comes with a spacious roofgarden. By this point his relationship with Mrs Kim, who basically begged him to move in when he first visited with Jungsoo, has clearly become strained, she perhaps also a little hurt in appearing to have carried a torch for him while hinting at feeling trapped in an unsatisfying marriage as the building itself continues on a course of disrepair.
Mrs Kim too appears to have differing personas as she shuffles between the floors of the building she owns while each of the episodes replays with only slight differences and subject to the consequences of the last. Failed artists moving to Jeju to start again becomes a repeated theme, though it’s as if Byungsoo is resisting the pattern, talking of buying a dog with Sunhee when they relocate but then putting it off for another three years while they save money. By the time he’s made it to the top floor it’s like he’s hit rock bottom, raving about a vision from God telling him to move to Jeju and make 12 films while still ostensibly on an extended break from filmmaking. Shooting once again in a crisp black and white, Hong finally brings us back to where we came in leading us to wonder how much of what we’ve just seen really happened and how much was just a kind of thought experiment created by a bored and insecure director feeling maudlin and trying to figure himself out while his career collapses around his ears. Maybe you have to go up so you can come back down, but it doesn’t seem to leave you any less lonely as the melancholy Byungsoo discovers smoking a solitary cigarette looking up at the house from outside as if trying to decide where exactly he belongs.
Walk Up screens at Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 9 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.