A struggling female filmmaker finds herself haunted by a ghost of the silver screen in Shin Su-won’s strangely moving ode to cinema, Hommage (오마주). As much about the difficulties faced by women in the predominantly male film industry as those faced by women in general in the still patriarchal society, Shin’s drama looks back to a cinematic golden age and the pale shadows of those history has seen fit to forget. “You will vanish one day like I did” according an ominous note discovered in a never finished screenplay, but through a gentle process of restoration the forgotten figures of the past can perhaps be resurrected as the frustrated director begins to find new hope in a departed kindred spirit.
Dressed very much like Shin herself, struggling director Ji-wan (Lee Jung-eun) has hit a creative rut. Her third film, Ghost Man, has recently been released but is not exactly setting the box office on fire while the latest tentpole blockbuster continues to pack them in. With her confidence at rock bottom and financial worries hovering on the horizon, Ji-wan is offered an unusual job which although it might not pay much will be very worthwhile in helping to restore Hong Eun-won’s 1962 melodrama A Woman Judge starring the great Moon Jeong-seok to its former glory. Unfortunately like many films of its era the negative is in poor condition with sound missing from several scenes which Ji-wan is supposed to re-dub only she’s not much to go on beginning by tracking down the director’s daughter in the hope of retrieving a script before embarking on a kind of scavenger hunt in the search for Hong herself.
As the film opens and indeed closes, Ji-wan is in the middle of a swimming lesson quite literally attempting to keep herself afloat mimicking the despair she is beginning to feel in her personal life as regards her career. She identifies strongly with Hong who, in the film’s slightly fictionalised history, was forced to give up filmmaking after her third film, as Ji-wan herself fears she may have to do, having toiled away for 10 years just waiting for the opportunity while Ji-wan is also approaching the 10th anniversary of her decision to pivot into filmmaking as a married wife and mother. Though she had taken the job only reluctantly, the desire to restore the film is partly born of her need to rebuild her confidence as a filmmaker but also to honour Hong’s legacy and restore her rightful place in Korean film history.
Playing out like a ghost story, Ji-wan is almost literally haunted by Hong’s silhouette in her elegant trench coat and hat, at several moments hearing someone shout “let me out” as if pleading with her to release Hong’s spirit from within the sealed film cans of her almost forgotten feature. Meanwhile she’s spiritually haunted by the discovery of a woman’s body in a car parked outside her apartment building which had not been discovered for some months, a pretty photo of a young woman sitting on her dashboard perhaps of the woman herself or of a daughter, sister, friend but either way a poignant reminder of a life extinguished which Ji-won worries may have been that of her next-door neighbour whose crying she sometimes heard through the walls. On meeting some of those who once knew Hong, each at some point laments that they are the only ones left who remember that time while Ji-wan gets her epiphany in a soon to be torn down cinema with a hole in the roof raining down light into an empty auditorium,.
Surrounded by unsupportive men from her grumpy husband (Kwon Hae-hyo) to surprisingly chauvinistic son (Tang Jun-sang) who declares himself “love-starved” while echoing the words of those around him that her desire to chase her dreams is “selfish”, Ji-wan is beginning to feel as if she’s disappearing too while finding herself forced to re-confront her notions of femininity in approaching the menopause combined with an unexpected medical crisis. Things aren’t quite as bad for her as they were for Hong, at least no one’s ever thrown salt at her as Miss Lee (Lee Joo-Sil), Hong’s friend and editor, recounts, but she’s less than surprised on hearing that Hong had kept the existence of her daughter secret from her colleagues fearful they’d never let her direct if they knew she was a mother. The film Ji-wan is trying restore is based on the true story of Korea’s first female judge who was in fact murdered by her husband, though the film envisages a more positive ending if within the limits of contemporary patriarchy in insisting that a career is not incompatible with fulfilling the expectations of traditional femininity in caring for her in-laws, husband, and children. Ironically enough, Korea’s first film director Park Nam-ok had been forced to film with her baby on her back but completed just one feature which survives only in incomplete form.
Many films are presumed lost from Korea’s golden age not just those directed by women, but the particular lack of respect shown towards the films of Park and Hong is particularly upsetting to Ji-wan who later discovers that to add insult to injury old film stock was often mined for its silver content and then sold off to be used as hatbands other such frivolous material. No one really valued these films very much when they were made, so no one made much of an effort to preserve them just like no one is making much of an effort to save the ruined the cinema where she chases the ghost of Hong, the embittered projectionist eventually giving in to Ji-wan’s enthusiasm as she holds up the 8mm film she’s discovered to the light pouring though its ceiling. A beautifully haunting cinematic mystery, Shin’s melancholy drama eventually allows its heroine to reclaim her love for cinema along with her self-confidence as a filmmaker through the restoration of the past finding a kindred spirit in the long departed Hong unfairly denied not only the acclaim she deserved but the artistic possibility to which she should have been entitled.
Hommage screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)