Walk Up (탑, Hong Sang-soo, 2022)

“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.

Trailer

The Novelist’s Film (소설가의 영화, Hong Sang-soo, 2022)

Once again in a meta mood, Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist’s Film (소설가의 영화, Soseolgaui Yeonghwa) seems to be peopled by those who’ve already given up. The heroine’s friend has given up her writing career to run a small-town bookshop while she herself is struggling with writer’s block, her friend’s assistant has given up acting to learn sign language, and a movie star she later meets has apparently retired because she doesn’t feel the desire to act anymore. In similar fashion a director declares that some have perceived a shift in his career that leads him to concede that he just doesn’t feel the sense of “compulsion” that used to drive him and his work may have become freer and more authentic as a result. 

As usual, Hong may partly be taking about himself, about his relationship to filmmaking and to his muse Kim Min-hee who is herself given a meta moment when berated by the director, Park (Kwon Hae-hyo), who tells her that her decision to retire is a “waste” of her talent only to be shouted at by blocked novelist Junhee (Lee Hye-young) who is hoping to make a film in order to rejuvenate her creative mojo. Junhee tells Park in no uncertain terms that Kilsoo is not a child and if this is the choice she’s made he ought to respect it, circling back to the offensiveness of the word “waste” and its various implications. The situation is so awkward that it leads Park’s wife to leave it all together, but it’s true enough that after this outburst Junhee seems to find a more comfortable relationship with Kilsoo than with any of her old acquaintances as they bond in mutual admiration and shared creative endeavour. 

It’s with a sense of tension that the film opens, Junhee venturing into the bookshop run by an old friend (Seo Young-hwa) only overhear a heated argument between her friend and a younger assistant, Hyunwoo. As so often with Hong the nature of the relationship is unclear, the argument intimate in quality not really the kind one has with an employee or casual acquaintance and so awkward that Junhee decides to wait outside until it’s over. In any case, Junhee’s manner even with the friend she’s deliberately tracked down and come to see is somewhat accusatory and passive aggressive as if hurt by her friend’s decision to abruptly drop out of contact apparently having given up writing and intending to cut herself off from her city life in its entirety.

Her encounter with the director is similar in that she seems clearly annoyed with him, firstly pretending not to recognise his wife then accusing of them of deliberately hiding from her at a popular tourist attraction. Picking up on the vibes, he asks her if she’s still upset with him over a project to adapt one of her novels that fell through. She says she isn’t but is obviously annoyed about something while his wife elaborates on his creative process and the ways she thinks he and it have changed. Then again the wife is also a little strange, introducing herself to Kilsoo, whom they’ve randomly bumped into in a park, as someone who lives with director Park rather than as his wife answering Kilsoo’s question of how long she’s lived with him with a very matter of fact 30 years. Junhee is similarly vague about the extent of her relationship with an ageing poet and former drinking buddy (Gi Ju-bong) with whom she had herself lost touch or perhaps partially ghosted when his interest turned romantic. We hear brief snippets about Kilsoo’s personal life, an allusion to scandal and drinking problem but never see her offscreen husband, only his filmmaker nephew (Ha Seong-guk). 

Yet the the serendipitous connection between Kilsoo and Junhee allows each of them to reignite their creative spark while generating an unexpected friendship. The film novelist envisions is scripted but intended to capture something of Kilsoo as she is while ostensibly playing a character, exposing the reality of the vague relationships by cutting through artifice to the truth. In another series of meta comments, the poet reminds her she needs a hook to draw the audience in but she simply tells him she’ll figure that bit out later because the story is in its way irrelevant. “He writes what he lives” she later says of him, a little dismissively. In any case, the film she makes takes on another meta quality, Hong himself perhaps behind a camera as Kim Min-hee and another woman gather flowers eventually ending with a mutual declaration of love and a sudden burst of colour in what has been a static and monochrome affair which hints at the sense of freedom and comfort Hong like the director may have found in new artistic connection. 


The Novelist’s Film screens at Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 4/7 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

Introduction (인트로덕션, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)

A young man struggles to define himself in the shadow of parental expectation in a minor departure from Hong Sang-soo, somehow warmhearted even its icy exteriors and wilful melancholia. As the title perhaps implies, the hero of Introduction (인트로덕션) finds himself in the midst of his life’s prologue while receiving sometimes unwelcome “introductions” from each of his parental figures including one to a prominent but ultimately pompous actor (Ki Joo-bong) apparently a family friend to his divorced parents though adopting only the unsympathetic authoritarianism of the traditional father rather than the empathy the young man seems to seek. 

Divided into three loose episodes in the life of Youngho (Shin Seokho), Hong’s tripartite tale opens with an almost comic scene of a middle-aged acupuncturist (Kim Young-ho) bargaining with God promising to become a better person if only He helps him get out of some kind of fix. This moment of crisis might be why he’s suddenly asked Youngho, his son with whom he seems to be semi-estranged, to visit him though in a repeated motif we never find out quite what it is he wanted to say because in this case an old friend and famous actor suddenly turns up. Youngho is kept waiting in the waiting room while his girlfriend ironically waits for him at another location. Meanwhile he’s fussed over by his father’s doting receptionist who gives him the sense of familial comfort he lacks with either his mother or father. Suddenly he hugs her, a moment bringing new import to his later argument with the actor in which he rejects the inauthenticity of acting claiming that when he embraces someone it ought to mean something because it would be “morally wrong” to fake that kind of connection. 

The old actor, however, assumes his discomfort is some kind of young person’s puritanism sure that it doesn’t matter if it’s just “acting” or playing around, when a man embraces a woman it’s all “love”. Youngho implies his decision to abandon acting because of its essential inauthenticity is partly romantic jealously on the part of his girlfriend, yet in reality we realise that he is no longer with the woman who waited for him outside the acupuncturist, Juwon (Park Miso), despite having made an impulsive and possibly ill-advised decision to follow her to Berlin after she left to study abroad. Just as Youngho has a series of unsatisfactory “introductions” from mum and dad, Juwon struggles to assert herself in the company of her mother (Seo Young-hwa) despite having travelled to another country where she will it seems be staying with her mother’s close friend (Kim Min-hee). Juwon’s mother fears her friend has changed with age, now in someway younger, immediately asking Juwon to drop the honorifics that instantly divide them as members of different generations while apparently having abandoned conventionality by divorcing to become a bohemian artist. 

During their brief meeting, Youngho also remarks that he thinks his father has “changed” while musing on the idea of asking him for money to come to Berlin as a foreign student to be with Juwon, unwittingly trampling on this small step of freedom Juwon has been able to take away from her mother if only towards an aunt. Hong structures each of his sequences around groups of three people that begin and end with two, the last somehow awkward in its evenness as Youngho invites a male friend (Ha Seong-guk) to dine with his mother (Cho Yoon-hee) and the actor, perhaps sensing that he may need some kind of moral support. He is always, in one sense or another, left out in the cold not quite alone but in his own way lonely, hugging the receptionist but only gazing up at his mother on her hotel balcony literally unreachable in their unbridgeable emotional distance. He waits for her to wave, but she does not. On the beach on an overcast afternoon and not quite alone except perhaps in spirit, Youngho begins to realise that he’ll have to make his own introduction, his parents can’t help him even if they wanted to because they are are also a little lost, confused, and filled with anxiety. “Don’t worry too much” Youngho tells a similarly troubled soul in what turns out to be a dream, but it’s advice he might as well be giving himself looking out over a boundless ocean in contemplation of his life still to come. 


Introduction screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (Korean subtitles only)

In Front of Your Face (당신얼굴 앞에서, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)

“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)

The Woman Who Ran (도망친 여자, Hong Sang-soo, 2020)

“He keeps saying the same thing. It’s absurd how he repeats himself”, an exasperated wife complains. “If he just repeats himself how can he be sincere?”. Perhaps another meta self own from master of the form Hong Sang-soo, but one that has additional bite in indirectly targeting a potentially duplicitous heroine who may or may not be “The Woman Who Ran” (도망친 여자, Domangchin Yeoja). Ran from what, one might ask though there is something clearly fugitive in the brief sojourns of Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) whose casually profound conversations with a trio of old friends once again probe into the complicated nature of the relationships between men and women as if she were on a quest to find out what else is out there for a woman of a certain age than a, as she intentionally or otherwise characterises it, dull and unfulfilling marriage. 

It’s the first of her hosts, Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa), who perhaps signals Gam-hee’s desire for change in pointing out that her hair is much shorter than it had been the last time she saw her or ever before, Gam-hee apparently having attempted to hack it off herself in the bathroom in a fit of despair before deciding to get a professional to fix it. Young-soon thinks it makes her look like a “flighty high school student”, and in a sense it does in her slightly nervous giddiness even as she cuts the figure of a typically elegant, upper-middle class lady of leisure. As she tells each of her friends, Gam-hee claims that she and her husband have never spent a day apart in their five years of marriage, his idea apparently in a romantic conviction that those who love each other should stick together, but now he’s apparently gone off on a “business trip” so she’s travelling around visiting friends. Repeated ad infinitum in more or less the same words, Gam-hee’s story can’t help but feel overly rehearsed and less “sincere” with each iteration, leading us to wonder what the real reason for her excursion might be along with her true feelings about her marriage. 

As we find out, Young-soon is recently divorced from a self-absorbed playwright/director and has used the settlement money to move out to the semi-rural fringes of the suburbs where she has a small patch of land farming her own produce. She now lives with another woman, Young-jin (Lee Eun-mi), described only as a “roommate” but the atmosphere is domestic and settled, an ostensibly harmonious home. It is nevertheless disrupted by an irritating man (Shin Seok-ho), a new neighbour come to issue a complaint about the couple’s habit of feeding the local strays whom he maligns as “robber cats”, politely suggesting they stop because his wife is apparently so afraid of them that she can no longer leave her new home. Young-jin is polite but firm, describing their relationship to the cats as like their children, dismissing the man’s insistence that his wife’s ability to enjoy her garden is an “important matter” with the affirmation that the cats’ right to life is also an “important matter” and so they’re at an impasse. The comically passive aggressive conversation ends in a stalemate with the man admitting a momentary defeat, annoyed that the two women refused to acknowledge his authority, but pettily vowing to appeal to a higher power by reporting them to a residents’ association no better than the local rooster who likes to peck the feathers off hens to show them who’s boss. 

A man turns up to annoy Gam-hee’s second friend too, a 26-year-old unsuccessful poet (Ha Seong-guk) she apparently slept with on a whim only to see him become overly attached. Like Young-soon, Su-young (Song Seon-mi) has achieved a degree of financial independence and has recently bought a long term lease on her own home. She is apparently happily single, or at least convinced that good men are hard to find and most particularly in Korea. Nevertheless, she has something tentative going with a soon-to-be divorced architect who lives on the floor above, which is one reason why she’s keen to be rid of the annoyingly clingy poet. Su-young tries to ask Gam-hee about her marriage, if she’s really in love, but she can only answer unconvincingly that she feels a little bit of love everyday, accidentally or otherwise positioning herself as the loved and not the lover. She tells the final of her friends, Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), that her husband is a part-time teacher and translator of historical texts and novels prompting the question of what sort of business trip he might have needed to go on, alone, for the first time in five years, but also signalling something of her boredom with her overly conventional life, complaining to Su-young that she’s fed up with her hobbyist sideline running an unsuccessful florists. 

Her meeting with Woo-jin is, if she’s to be beleived, serendipitous, the fact she’s brought no gift as she had for the other two women (meat for Young-soon that as it turns out was really for Young-jin, and a designer coat for fashionable Su-young) supporting her case, but does perhaps lead her towards her endgame as the protagonist in a final encounter with a problematic man, as it turns out an old flame who is the cause of the initial awkwardness between the two women whose former closeness we can infer from small, intimate gestures, Woo-jin placing her hand over Gam-hee’s by means of apology, and Gam-hee later clasping her friend’s knee. Curiously enough, the two women are also dressed more or less the same, and later seem to have patched up their old friendship, conspiratorially slagging off Woo-jin’s husband Seong-gu (Kwon Hae-hyo), now a famous author she fears has become an “insincere” narcissist who’s let fame go to his head. 

Apparently having seen him on TV, Gam-hee too agrees he’s “changed”, wondering if he’s really the same man she once knew, endlessly prattling on self-importantly for the cameras. Woo-jin can’t bear to listen to him anymore, fed up with his well rehearsed quips and affected persona. In seeing him again is Gam-hee confronted by the “reality” of her romantic fantasy of the failed love of her youth, or merely presented with an uncomfortable mirror of artifice that, like her meetings with her three friends prompts her into reconsideration of who she is and what it is she wants out of life? “I’d like to live somewhere this” she says to both Young-soon and Su-young, partly out of politeness but also re-imagining herself as a new age cottager or fancy free bachelorette, hearing the scandalous story of a woman who really did run disappearing in the night from her crushingly disappointing existence. Nevertheless, like many of Hong’s heroes Gam-hee remains a fugitive, retreating to the temporary refuge of the familiar trapped somewhere between past and future without clear direction but perhaps a little more alive. 


The Woman Who Ran streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival. It will also open at Curzon Bloomsbury & stream via Curzon Home Cinema on 11th December ahead of hitting Mubi 20th December courtesy of CMC Pictures.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Grass (풀잎들, Hong Sang-soo, 2018)

Grass poster 1You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops, at least according to the melancholy narrator of a Tom Waits song recalling the flighty lover too free spirited for his wholesome hometown. Like one of the rundown dive bars in Waits’ conceptual universe, the cafe at the centre of Hong Sang-soo’s Grass (풀잎들, Pul-ip-deul) attracts its fair share of lonely drinkers looking for somewhere quiet to pour out their sorrows. Ostensibly a tale of simple eavesdropping abetted by the presence of a laptop, Hong’s narrative is at his most defiantly reflexive as it forces us to question the order of its reality and, in passing, our own.

Unnamed until the closing credits, Areum (Kim Min-hee) sits in a quiet cafe, tucked away in a corner tapping on her laptop and convincing herself she is an invisible observer of the world around her. Listening in on the various conversations of the other customers, she waxes philosophical on life, love, death, and distance by means of a beautifully poetic interior monologue but tells a fellow patron that she is not a writer, only writing, sort of a diary, but not a diary, something unusual for now. The irony is that though Areum feels herself to be far removed from those she is observing, they often complain that they feel “watched” or at any rate anxious under her intense yet abstracted gaze, sometimes challenging her but backing down when faced with her almost total lack of interest in interaction.

The patrons, almost echoes of themselves, are comprised of three couples – one in youth, one middle-age, and one approaching their twilight years. The men drink something cold in a tall glass with a straw, and the women something warm from a pleasantly round cup and saucer. Each of the men is an actor, while at least one of the women is a writer, though all of their conversations have their particular quality of awkwardness with the men largely trying to extract something from the women be it love, or forgiveness, or relief.

Finding herself in an awkward situation familiar to any woman who’s ever tried to work in a coffee shop on her own, Areum is approached by the middle-aged actor (Jung Jin-young) apparently trying to write a screenplay, and propositioned for advice. Having tried and failed to lure his wily writer friend (Kim Sae-byuk) on a 10 day retreat to “collaborate”, he asks Areum if he can come and “observe” her. She turns him down by saying she has a boyfriend, only for the actor to ask to talk to him for his permission, to prove he’s “not some kind of strange guy”.

The older actor (Gi Ju-bong), meanwhile, casually tells his companion (Seo Young-hwa) that he’s recently come out of hospital following a suicide attempt after trying to kill himself for love. Trying to move the conversation on, she tells him that she’s recently moved to a small house near the mountains, but realises her mistake when he fixates on the incidental detail that she’s got a spare room. Brushing off her reticence about a roommate, he repeatedly states that he’s got nowhere else to go in the hope that, as Areum says in her caustic voiceover, she will take pity on him and allow him to live the life of Riley on her dime. The friend is clearly distressed, she doesn’t want this man in her house (her equally strained looks when someone else tries to offer him a room suggest she’s reason to believe he’s trouble) but feels obliged to keep apologising for her refusal to acquiesce to his quite unreasonable request.

According to the maybe fiancée of Areum’s brother, men are cowards when it comes to pain or the need to end things. Areum seems to agree, but has a fairly cynical view on the entirety of human relationships, berating the pair for irresponsibly intending to marry on “love” alone. “We only loved each other” another sad young woman insists while harangued by a drunk middle-aged man intent on blaming her for the suicide of her late lover, neatly reversing the dynamics of the young couple from the cafe arguing about their shared sense of guilt over the death of a friend.

Areum wonders if it’s possible to fall in love with an innocent heart if you’re carrying the weight of someone else’s death. “You insignificant things” she warns the youngsters newly in love “you’ll die someday”, neatly ignoring the fact that so will she. Or perhaps this world will die with her. We begin to wonder if any of this is real or merely a series of manifestations of Areum’s cafe musings, reconstructions of the lives of others imagined from snippets overheard from adjacent tables. Adjacent tables is where Areum’s preferred to be, observing not partaking, a lonely ghost in this haunted cafe where lost souls come to ease their burdens. Yet, finally her resistance crumbles. She accepts an offer of soju and joins the gathering, abandoning her lofty pretensions of distance for a taste of togetherness. “In the end people are emotions…And I long for them now” she realises. “Is it real? It would be nice if it were”.


Grass was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Power of Kangwon Province (강원도의 힘, Hong Sang-soo, 1998)

Power of Kangwon province posterTogether, but separate, could serve as a thematic guide to the work of Hong Sang-soo for whom time is malleable and place even more so. The Power of Kangwon Province (강원도의 힘, Gangwon-do ui him), his second feature, is as playful as one might expect, employing the dual structure familiar from Hong’s later work to set a pair of lovers against each other as they endure the same holiday without ever crossing paths in an attempt to forget their doomed romance.

Jisook (Oh Yun-hong) takes a train to the titular Kangwon province – a popular holiday destination just far enough from the city to make it an attractive place to bury one’s sorrows. Together (but sort of separate) with two university friends she wanders around doing all the regular tourist stuff. For some reason the girls attract the attention of a local policeman (Kim Yu-seok) who starts hanging out with them. Over a tense dinner, Ji-sook argues with her friend over her failed affair with a married man, after which she ends up in an odd encounter with the policeman who is also married.

Meanwhile, married professor Sangkwon (Baek Jong-hak) is in a state of lovelorn depression over the end of an affair with a much younger woman who he claims is the only one he’s ever truly loved. Underappreciated at his current place of work, he spends some time sucking up to his sumo-loving boss but eventually comes to the conclusion it’s all been pointless and he’s never going to get tenure from this rigid old man. Still, despite his wife’s encouragement, he drags his feet applying to another university and continues to mope. Relief comes when his friend (Chun Jae-hyun) invites to him Kangwon for a few days to forget his troubles, but time away only seems to reinforce his sense of emptiness and inability to let go of a lost love.

In truth, we have little implication that the stories of Jisook and Sangkwon are connected at all until they finally intersect save that their movements mirror each other as they each attempt to erase the memory of their failed romance through a sad vacation. Jisook and Sangkwon are on the same train, going to the same place, where they do very similar things but their paths do not cross again – they are out of step with one another, unable to repair the rhythm of their romance but bound by an awkward togetherness just the same.

Meanwhile, a dark spectre haunts them in the form of a mysterious woman and her “fall” from a cliff. Jisook’s disappointing relationship with the married policeman is at least a natural connection, however ill advised it may turn out to be, whereas Sangkwon spends his time irritatedly chasing a lonely woman who got fed up of waiting for him and later walked into the path of another jealous and impatient man. Though in no particular hurry, both Jisook and Sangkwon are constantly annoyed by being forced to waste time hanging around. Jisook’s ballistic attack on the policeman who arrived late to collect her on a return visit to Kangwon is probably misdirected anger at Sangkwon and the illicit nature of her visit, but Sangkwon’s is a kind of arrogance – as if he believes the world exists at his leisure and that he is free to put it down and pick it back up again at his own choosing. Jisook wouldn’t wait for him any longer, but Sangkwon can’t quite accept the relationship is over. He never truly considers abandoning his wife and family to pursue a supposedly “true” love, but won’t give up on the romantic ideal.

Hong positions both lovers as lost, chasing distant ghosts of each other through the spooky environs of the picturesque holiday town, attempting to bury their loneliness in other bodies but emerging with only sadness and resentment. Connection is fleeting, and perhaps unsatisfying in itself. The power of Kangwon province may lie in making a grave for the impossible dream of enduring of love. Jisook buries the smoking embers of her romance even whilst still alight, leaving Sangkwon sadly gazing into a goldfish bowl made for two but now home to only one. Destined never to understand each other, we are all trapped in our own fishbowls sadly gazing out at an incomprehensible world where the only reward of longing is existential sadness. Sound familiar?


The Power of Kangwon Province was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Home video release trailer (no subtitles)

Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Hong Sang-soo, 2018)

Hotel by the river posterTaking an extended sojourn in the melancholy world of European gothic, Hong Sang-soo takes Death to task in the Bergmanesque Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Gangbyun Hotel). Shifting away from formal experimentation to something much more straightforward, even traditional, Hong maintains his love of dualities and unexpected symmetry as he places an elderly poet in the grip of his own mortality side by side with a young woman dealing with the emotional fallout of having been involved with a man whose heart had frozen. Beautiful but barren, the snowbound landscape points to an inner winter where hope of an invincible summer has long since passed, leaving only regret and futility in its place.

Our hero, Younghwan (Ki Joo-bong), is about to do “something foolish” once again. Feeling the icy fingers of Death on his shoulders, he’s invited his two estranged adult sons to visit him in a small hotel where he has been staying at the grace of the management. Meanwhile, he spends his days composing a last poem and gazing idly at the snow-covered vista below which is where he catches sight of a beautiful young woman with a visible wound on her hand. Like Younghwan, the young woman, Sanghee (Kim Min-hee), is here in retreat though hers is of a more immediate kind. Broken hearted over lost love, she’s invited a close friend, Yeonju (Song Seon-mi), to help her through, making a sad vacation of a trying time.

Feeling his mortality, Younghwan’s desire to see his sons is born more of a poetic sensibility and a need to put his affairs in order than it is of any great paternal affection. “Men are incapable of grasping love”, Yeonju intones from two tables over after she and Sanghee accidentally become the only other diners in a quiet eatery not far enough from the depressing hotel. Meanwhile, Younghwan is trying to excuse his decision to walk out on his family when his sons were small through love as a life philosophy, that real love must be pursued at all costs even if it fails. He claims he left the boys’ mother because it would be wrong to stay out of a sense of “guilt” alone, but his lack of remorse for the hurt his individualised actions have wrought makes his justifications hollow.

Hurt is where we find Sanghee whose internalised suffering is neatly externalised in her wounded hand. Literally “burned” in love, she is one woman among many misused by a weak willed and insensitive man much like Younghwan himself. Yet where Younghwan wallows, superficially rejects his responsibility, and frostily tries to reconnect with his sons, Sanghee heals herself with the warmth of friendship, hibernating her way towards wholeness as if waiting for the winter sun. Younghwan sees beauty in the inviolability of snow, but Sanghee sees life even here and she values it. If the magpies can make a nest even in the depths of winter, there must be hope for her too.

Younghwan has no hope, for he knows his days are over. An aesthete, he is captivated by the beauty of the two young women, repeatedly complimenting them on their attractiveness and eventually deciding to dedicate his final poem only to them after doubling back on his distant sons to return for more drinks with softer companionship. The poem is harsh and self lacerating, a confession of sorts but one made to a neutral audience and lamenting the oppressive forces of futility he subconsciously blames for an inability to pursue emotional authenticity.

Even Younghwan’s sons are mere echoes of himself – Byungsoo (Yu Jun-sang), the melancholy artist too afraid to pursue female companionship, and Kyungsoo (Kwon Hae-hyo), a dejected middle-aged salaryman too ashamed to tell his father that his marriage has failed. In a piece of parting advice, Younghwa expounds on the meaning behind Byungsoo’s name – “byung” as in “side by side”, intended not only as a literal hope that the brothers would always be close (something which does not seem to have come to pass), but also to echo Younghwa’s two minds life philosophy. One mind capable of conceiving of heaven, and the other to walk the ground. One mind will try to conquer the other but, Younghwan counsels, you mustn’t let it. His advocacy for balance in all things only further reinforces his failure to achieve it. Younghwan’s former wife describes him as an “absolute monster with no redeeming human features” which seems like a stretch given the broken, lonely old man before us but might well have been true in his youth full of a poet’s fire untempered by age’s regret.

The ironically named “Heimat” hotel is of course a temporary refuge, existing almost out of time with its old fashioned decor and atmosphere of faded grandeur. Younghwan is staying here for free on the invitation of a fan whose ardor eventually fades. A guest who’s outstayed his welcome, Younghwan is resolved to the coming end of his world, anticipating release if not redemption but lingering on until his day is done filled only with regret for life’s futility and its many disappointments. Hotel by the River finds Hong at his most poetic, but also at his most melancholy in a fatalistic reckoning which finds no escape from its eerie snowbound beauty.


Hotel by the River was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Claire’s Camera (La caméra de Claire / 클레어의 카메라, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

Claire's Camera poster“I want talk about someone. About a man of 25, at the most. He is a beautiful man who wants to die before being marked by death. You loved him. More than that.” Hong Sang-soo channels Éric Rohmer through the aptly named Claire’s Camera (La caméra de Claire / 클레어의 카메라), but does so through the unexpected prism of Marguerite Duras whose poem is recited in French at the request of a sleazy Korean film director (Jung Jin-young) making a clumsy attempt to pick up the titular Claire (Isabelle Huppert) through an otherwise beautiful act of cross cultural interaction. The poem, like Claire’s polaroids, exists in an uncanny space – someone wants to tell us about a man we once loved as if we never knew him who wants to die before he is changed by death. Like Duras’ landmark exploration of the shock waves of imploding romance, Hong offers us life in fragments as Claire’s polaroids attempt to rewrite a half remembered history in order to make sense of a disordered present.

Film sales assist Man-hee (Kim Min-hee) is abruptly fired by her boss, Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee), right in the middle of the Cannes film festival. Yang-hye offers no real reason why Man-hee has to go save that her perception of her has changed. She no longer feels that Man-hee is an “honest” person and as a person who values “honesty” she no longer feels comfortable working with her. Rather than lick her wounds back in Seoul, Man-hee decides to enjoy the rest of her time in Cannes as a kind of holiday which is how she ends up meeting Claire – an older French woman who is visiting the city for the very first time and has brought along her Polaroid camera to properly record the event.

Claire seems to pop-up here, there, and everywhere, dressed in an old-fashioned detective’s outfit of a stylish trench coat and trilby, snapping away like she’s gathering evidence about an international conspiracy. Striking up an awkward conversation with melancholy womanising film director So eventually brings her into the orbit of the three Koreans who are, we later realise, involved in an embarrassing workplace love triangle. Yet each time Claire appears, her photos don’t make sense – she has a photo of Man-hee wearing her trench coat that we never see her take while her other pictures seem generally out-of-order with the timeline as it has been presented to us.

The only way to change things, Claire intones, is to look at everything again very slowly. Ironically enough she offers the opportunity to do just that by means of instant photography, snapping a still frame of a painful memory in order to ruminate and reconsider. She claims she takes photographs as a means of being in the moment – after all, once you take the photo the subject is no longer the same. The act of being photographed has perhaps changed them, but more than that time has passed and we’re all seconds older now than we were before if perhaps no wiser. Yet looking at the photograph, literally looking at yourself from an external perspective, prompts a reevaluation of the past and perhaps changes the course of the present.

There is also, of course, a meta dimension to all this – as he had in The Day After and On the Beach at Night Alone, Hong muses on his own romantic difficulties in casting his real life love Kim Min-hee as a character with a near identical name while also ensuring that So is even more of a Hong stand-in than his usual leads. Man-hee has been unfairly dismissed because of an indiscretion with the drunken director who has had her fired, by his current girlfriend, out of a sense of embarrassment. Both Yang-hye and So are “shocked” by Claire’s photograph which frames her in a sultry pose wearing (they claim) much more makeup than usual, while So, spotting her at a party, goes into a semi-paternal rage about Man-hee’s (not really all that short) denim hot pants and generally “immodest” appearance. Berating her for a supposed lack of self-confidence, accusing her of “selling herself” and trying to catch the attention of men, So “directs” her to be more authentic. Which is quite something seeing as he is currently dressed in a borrowed tux in order to conform to social expectations.

Authenticity, or more directly “honesty”, becomes a running theme from Yang-hye’s instance that Man-hee is “dishonest” to a young filmmaker’s insistence that it’s hard to make an “honest” film. Claire, at least, seems to be embarking on a process of “honest” art even if nothing she says or does quite adds up. Light and bright and breezy, Claire’s Camera is Hong in Rohmer mode, wistful yet resigned and perhaps even hopeful. There’s a reason everyone seems to be so “reasonable” even in the most unreasonable of situations, other people’s feelings are not something that can be debated and are best accepted even if understood only retrospectively. Claire and her camera seem perfectly aware of that, silently observing in preparation for presenting evidence in a self inquisition, but doing so with kindness even in the knowledge that sometimes it’s easier not to look.


Claire’s Camera was screened as part of a teaser series for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series will be Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum at Picturehouse Central on 30th August.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Day After (그 후, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

The day after posterHong Sang-soo, perpetually introspective, is having an especially reflective 2017. Releasing three films in quick succession, each of which star new muse Kim Min-hee, Hong seems unusually keen to turn the camera directly on himself and not least in his choice of star. In On the Beach at Night Alone, Kim played an actress in flight from the fallout of a destructive affair with a married director (a stand-in for Hong who never appears on screen), but in The Day After (그 후, Geu Hu), she plays an aspiring writer and free spirited bystander to an equally messy affair between a married publisher and his younger female assistant. Like many of Hong’s heroes (which often seem to be stand-ins for himself), Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is a cowardly, deluded womaniser who refuses to face his self-involved disaffection in favour of burying himself in youth and prettiness.

Bongwan has developed a habit of getting up early and leaving the house as soon as possible. His wife (Jo Yoon-hee) finds this odd after a couple of decades of married life and decides to ask him about it over a hurried breakfast. She is patient and half playful, but Bongwan is anxious and embarrassed. He refuses to answer, laughing the questioning off until his wife later texts him to apologise for her “overreaction.” Overreacting is something she will get to later, but for now Bongwan is about to have an informal meeting with a potential new assistant. His wife was not wrong after all, Bongwan had been having an affair with a girl from work, Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk), who has now left in order to move on with her life after realising Bongwan is too spineless to ever leave his family.

New girl Areum (Kim Min-hee) is an aspiring writer with good credentials who comes highly recommended by a Professor Bongwan has huge respect for but that’s not why he hires her. He hires her because she fits neatly in the space vacated by absent lover Changsook, is quite pretty, and strokes his vanity by expressing her admiration for his writing even though he mainly does criticism rather than “real” writing these days. Bongwan’s lascivious ways are immediately obvious in his first conversation with Areum which shifts from relaxed interview to personal chit-chat in which he asks her slightly insensitive questions about her family history, grasps her hand without warning and then later stops to remark on just how lovely he thinks her hands are. They change registers from the formal to the informal right away as Bongwan instructs Areum not to refer to him as the president but as a boss (they’re equals, but he’s in charge). He buys her dinner, pushes her to drink, and flirts with her, but Areum is ahead of him and neatly deflects his growing interest.

Areum moves the conversation to a higher level by asking Bong-wan exactly why it is he’s alive. Bongwan, not as much of the contemplative sort as he seems, waffles on for a bit but doesn’t really know, he was born after all and then…. “And then” is the English title of the Japanese novel, Sorekara by Natsume Soseki (adapted into a fine film by Yoshimitsu Morita in 1985), from which the film draws its Korean title. The hero of Soseki’s novel, Daisuke, is the son of a wealthy family whose ennui is so deep that he finds himself needing to place a hand on his chest to check that his heart is still beating. Daisuke had been in love in his youth but never said anything, telling himself it was out of a sense of chivalry towards a friend in love with the same girl. Years later he realises his notions of “chivalry” were all affectation, a deluded way of papering over his cowardice and fear of rejection. That Bongwan eventually decides to give this particular book to Areum is quite telling in his obvious identification with Daisuke who also failed to speak his heart and faced a difficult decision in considering whether to abandon the life of comfort he had always known to strike out on his own in the name of love.

Bongwan wheedles and defers, squirming like a child caught with chocolate round his mouth yet claiming to know nothing about the missing biscuits. His long suffering wife, finding evidence of a possible attachment to another woman, “overreacts” in grand style by physically abusing Areum, assuming her to be the missing Changsook. Hong plays his usual game with timelines, keeping the present uncertain as Changsook repeatedly reappears in life or in memory. It’s clear that for Bongwan these three women are almost interchangeable, no matter what he might say as regards his grand romance with his much younger female assistant who quite rightly points out his extreme moral cowardice in an emotional outburst over an awkward dinner. In a typically Hong-ian touch of meta-comedy, Bongwan may even have forgotten the entirety of the strange day he spent with Areum who later echoes his wife’s words to the effect that his “face looks different”. Areum, however, like most of the characters Kim has played for Hong, eventually wins out in her free spirited sunniness, taking her great belief in the world’s beauty with her, leaving Bongwan to enjoy his black-bean noodles of misery inside in the prison of his own making.


Screened as the opening night gala of the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)