Director – Hong Sang Soo – 2021 – South Korea – Cert. 12a – 85m
A Korean-born actress returns from the US to spend time with those close to her and attend a meeting with a director for a possible acting job – out in UK cinemas on Friday, September 23rd
A woman on a sofa. She gets up but can’t wake the woman sleeping in the bedroom. Later Sangok (Lee Hyeyoung, the sofa one) and Jeongok (Cho Yunhee, the bedroom one) talk – Jeongok had been having a really vivid dream – and go out for coffee and breakfast to a pleasant lakeside café, followed by a visit to the local café run by Jeongok’s son and his girlfriend. Sangok has a meeting with a director later at a restaurant to discuss a possible film project. Going there in the taxi, she gets a message from director Jaewon (Kwon Haehyo) on her phone that the venue changed, so changes the destination. Her admiring host makes her feel at home enough to explain her situation – and why she feels unable to do the film, which leaves him in a state of shock.
In the latter part of his career, director Hong has honed his personal filmmaking style and vocabulary into a distinctive form uniquely his own. Watch five minutes of one, and you know it couldn’t be made by anyone else. He uses a minimal budget and stages lengthy scenes where the camera rarely moves, and the elements are visual composition (as set up), script, dialogue, improvising and actors. This could be a recipe for tedium or disaster, yet Hong’s style is consistently captivating and provides the springboard for his cast, especially his actresses, to deliver astonishing performances in what are essentially low-key, unspectacular slice of life pieces. The effect of particular scenes is not unlike the experience of being in a deeply engaging conversation with someone around a coffee table in their home or at a restaurant.
In this film, conversations reveal details as to what’s going on slowly and naturally. For instance, when we meet first the returning Sangok then her host Jeongok, it’s not clear whether they are friends or relatives or possibly even lovers, but as they talk and go out for breakfast, things become clearer and we are drawn into their lives by what they say. This goes against one of the great maxims about screenwriting, “show don’t tell”, and yet, Hong’s approach works time and again in his films.
If you want a good example of a film which passes the Bechdel Test – where women characters in movies talk or act without needing to be related to a man in some sort of romantic role, look no further than the first 40 minutes of this film. The two women have complicated and fascinating lives, and men don’t come into it. Well, maybe men are mentioned in passing, and the host has a grown up son, but that’s it.
About halfway through, the feel shifts with Sangok’s meeting with director Jaewon in about an hour into the film, a pleasant restaurant interior, where several bottles of alcohol are consumed. About an hour into the film, the actress reveals an unexpected home truth about herself which changes everything. The film ends (and this is not a spoiler) almost as it began, with Sangok waking up on her Jeongok sofa-bed and wandering into her room to see her lost deep within a another vivid dream. Earlier, Jeongok promises to tell Sangok about her dream sometime after midday, but we never hear her do so. What matters is not the content of her dreams, but the fact that she has them and sleeps peacefully and soundly through them.
Hong punctuates all this with little incidents, most memorably Sangok’s impromptu visit to the house – or more specifically its garden – where she grew up as a little girl, and various strangely compelling occasions where she or someone else goes outside to smoke a cigarette alone or with someone else. There’s even a memorable scene of Sangok and Jaewon walking down an alley in the rain towards the end.
Hong’s cinema appears on the surface to be slight, yet there’s something deeply affecting about it. Although it’s set up and staged for the camera, it feels very down to earth and ordinary, just like real life. No other living director of who I’m aware does anything quite like Hong, his films these days are something very special. Like much of Hong’s recent output, this is a film to be cherished.
Footnote: eagled-eyed watchers of credits will notice Hong’s longtime actress collaborator Kim Min-hee here taking on the job of production manager and stills photographer.
In Front of Your Face is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, September 23rd.