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 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)

Luck-key (럭키, Lee Gye-Byeok, 2016)

luck-keyWhen it comes to intelligent farce, Kenji Uchida is Japan’s undisputed master so remaking his 2012 tale of love, crime, and mistaken identity Key of Life was always going to be a tall order. Thankfully it’s one Lee Gye-byeok largely manages to meet as he skilfully relocates the tale to South Korea and swaps Uchida’s complicated farce for a more lateral double sided comedy. While not as accomplished as Uchida’s hilariously intricate original, Luck-key (럭키) manages to charm with its thoroughly romantic, comically absurd, approach.

On one side of town, hitman Hyung-wook (Yu Hae-jin) finishes off his latest assignment and disappears into the night, while on another out of work actor Jae-sung (Lee Joon) contemplates suicide only to be interrupted by his landlady’s exasperated pleas for the back rent. In a fairly hopeless state, Jae-Sung heads out to the local bath house, intending to bid the world goodbye in a more dignified state. Hyung-wook also ends up at the same destination to wash the blood off his hands, only to embarrassingly slip on an errant piece of soap and knock himself out cold. Remembering admiring Hyung-wook’s expensive watch on the way in, Jae-sung makes a split second decision and switches locker keys with the unconscious rich guy.

Jae-sung decides to put his affairs in order by using Hyung-wook’s money to pay off old debts as well as experience one day as wealthy man before doing himself in. When Jae-sung discovers Hyung-wook has lost his memory and assumed Jae-sung’s identity, he decides against giving back Hyung-wook’s belongings in favour of trying on life in the fast stream. Jae-sung has also grown attached to a young woman who inexplicably appears on Hyung-wook’s TV, though he does wonder why Hyung-wook has all of these weapons and telephones, not to mention a big board of investigation material, stored away in a hidden room…

Each man begins to live a different life thanks to assuming the contents of the wrong locker. Hyung-wook has the rawer deal as he can’t remember anything about himself and ends up at Jae-sung’s apartment to find it covered in old food cartons and beer cans with his hangman’s noose still lying in the middle of the floor. With only two bucks in his wallet and no cards, he even has to ask the paramedic who brought him in, Lina (Jo Yoon-hee), to lend him the medical fees. Somewhat improbably Jae-sung’s identity card tells him that he is 32 years old (coincidentally the same as Lina) which can only make one think that he must have had a very hard life. Nevertheless, Lina decides to help him by taking him home and getting him a job in her mother’s restaurant.

Even though he can’t remember who he was before, Hyung-wook gradually reveals a different side to himself as Jae-sung, enjoying being a part of Lina’s busy family life. Jae-sung, by contrast, moves further towards the shadows as he becomes increasingly determined to protected the woman on Hyung-wook’s TV screen who turns out to be a whistleblower in a high profile fraud case. Eun-ju (Lim Ji-yeon) is a woman afraid for her life who leaves her apartment as little as possible, but eventually Jae-sung tracks her down and begins to woo her in impressively romantic ways, only to discover he’s made everything worse by misunderstanding the nature of the situation she finds herself in.

Experiencing a different sort of life highlights for each of the men what was making them so unhappy – Hyung-wook realises the value of a warm and supportive family life whilst Jae-sung finds purpose and drive in his desire to protect Eun-ju. Both men had, in a sense been “acting” as a part of their daily lives, living a kind of half life which frustrated their attempts to move forward. Through living in someone else’s world, these hidden parts of themselves – Hyung-wook’s softer, more feminine side, and Jae-sung’s masculine desire to charge of his life, become “unlocked” and allow them to become the people they always meant to be all along.

Dispensing with Uchida’s farce structure, Lee Gye-byeok more or less eliminates the third major character from the original script in order to more neatly split the action between the two guys who then mirror each other as they each begin to move more towards the centre whilst also making tentative moves towards romance. Filled with gentle, often absurd humour and taking pot shots at everything from gangster clichés to diva TV stars, Luck-key makes all the right moves in its relocation to Korea, bringing both amusing comedy and genuine romantic warmth with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)