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South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo‘s offbeat whimsy keeps getting him into festivals, while he takes another step away from the arthouse mainstream with Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. This farcical treatment of a pretty girl’s clandestine affair with her married teacher and slide into alcoholism is poised somewhere between mild comedy and dream, and recaps Hong’s preferred themes. As in In Another Country and Hahaha, it is full of film world denizens (here they are students and teachers at a film school) who spend a good deal of screen time knocking back the rice wine. It’s probably unwise to try to read too much into the film’s very simple narrative and faux-naïve style, though these are the things that give it an undeniable backhand charm. Still it seems even more light-weight than his other recent work, and is a long shot for any kind of commercial release.
Haewon (newcomer Jung Eun-chae) has a father who is never seen, and her not overly affectionate mother takes her leave at the beginning of the film. She’s moving to Canada where, in her fantasy, she’ll dance barefoot in the streets and do everything she wants. Haewon notes she’s already doing that. She wants to be an actress but cuts class so much she risks failing; as she tells her mother, you don’t learn acting in school, you learn it in life.
For a girl as attractive as she is (Mom suggests she compete for Miss Korea), “life” generally means relating to the men who are constantly hitting on her. She meets a smiling stranger who claims to be a visiting San Diego prof and asks her to marry him over coffee. She’s tempted. But she’s still emotionally engaged in an unhappy on-again, off-again affair with one of her teachers, film director Lee (Lee Sunkyun in a weak, thankless role), whose wife has just had a baby. His fear of discovery leads to a funny scene in a bar where Lee and Haewon run into other students from the school, and more or less inadvertently reveal their relationship. Her classmates’ envy and resentment isolate Haewon, while the blustering, lying prof makes himself unbearable. There’s little satisfaction to be had from this childish, self-centered fellow, and the girl’s loneliness is greatest when they’re together. It’s painful to watch her escaping her problems at the bottom of a bottle of hard liquor.
Climbing a steep mountain path up to a fortress outside Seoul, the couple has a peaceful moment listening to Lee’s favorite piece of music over the ratty speakers of his cell phone; the entire scene is later repeated in a variation (recalling Isabelle Huppert’s three visits to the seaside in In Another Country), when Haewon climbs the same path with two of her friends, who are also in a problematic relationship, and Lee joins them. Ringing another bell is a cameo (here totally gratuitous) by Jane Birkin as a famous visiting actress, who finds the star-struck Haewon so simpatico she gives the girl her Paris number.
If that scene can pass as a goofy inside joke, one wonders what to do about more conspicuous loose ends in Hong’s script, like a bookseller who starts stalking Haewon and then vanishes from the story.
As the independent-minded young actress who finds herself sad, scared and alone, Korean teen TV star Jung strikes a good balance between the silliness of her encounter with Birkin and the sincerity with which she faces life.
Hong doesn’t always succeed in making improvisation a virtue. Tech work looks very casual, with plain camerawork featuring Hong’s usual penchant for ugly zooming. Subtitles on the Berlin print often read like puzzles.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition), Feb. 15, 2013.
Production company: Jeonwonsa Film
Cast: Jung Eun-chae, Lee Sunkyun, Yu Junsang, Ye Jiwon, Kim Jaok, Kim Euisung
Director: Hong Sangsoo
Screenwriter: Hong Sangsoo
Producer: Kim Kyounghee
Director of photography: Kim Hyungkoo, Park Hongyeol
Editor: Hahm Sungwon, Son Yeonji
Music: Jeong Yongji
Sales Agent: Finecut
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