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“If he only repeats himself, how can he be sincere?” wonders a woman about her famous novelist husband whose TV appearances are all starting to sound alike. For anyone familiar with the work of Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo, there’s a fascinating tongue-in-cheek quality to this remark, uttered in his latest work, the Berlin competition title The Woman Who Ran (Domangchin yeoja); repetitions with infinitesimal variations are basically Hong’s entire modus operandi.
Even within this single work, which is divided into three parts in which the same woman meets three different friends, there’s a sense of déjà vu in some of the details — apples are peeled several times, mountaintops are spied from several windows — and yet the results are not only intriguing and sometimes hilarious but clearly also a sincere meditation on what you might be saying when you think you aren’t saying much at all.
Most of Hong’s output has been festival material more than theatrical fodder, and since The Woman Who Ran doesn’t scale the dazzling heights of, say, Right Now, Wrong Then or benefit from the star power of his collaborations with Isabelle Huppert, this won’t have buyers running to sign on the dotted line. But the Hong faithful will be happy that the filmmaker, who went AWOL for a year after making three movies in 2017 and two in 2018, is back with a new film that’s similar to the ones he made before it — and yet a little different in quite a few ways.
Current Hong muse Kim Min-hee plays Gam-hee, a Seoul florist with a girly bob whose husband is away on a rare business trip, which gives her time to visit some girlfriends. Her first stop is the home of bespectacled, slightly weary-looking Young-soon (Seo Young-hua), who recently divorced and moved to the outskirts, where she has a vegetable patch close to her apartment. Subjects discussed during their reunion include love, real estate, the aggressive behavior of roosters and vegetarianism, as Gam-hee has brought some meat to grill for lunch along with several bottles of alcohol (probably the most recurring prop in all of Hong’s films).
Young-soon’s affable roommate, Young-ji (Lee Eun-mi), happens to be a star griller as well as a lover of cats, the latter fact resulting in the pic’s most hilarious exchange, involving a male neighbor who chides Young-ji for feeding some stray cats that keep turning up and scaring the man’s wife. The reaction shot from one of the cats at the end of the discussion is either one of Korean cinema’s unlikeliest strokes of luck since Parasite won the best picture Oscar or an impressively staged feat of animal handling.
After a three-film run in black-and-white that concluded with Hotel by the River, Hong has returned to the world of color for his latest. Cinematographer Kim Su-min regularly indulges in the zooms familiar from the director’s other films and does something interesting with all the male characters here, all seen only from behind, turning them into anonymous nuisances encroaching on the space of the women at the center of the story. Indeed, this is Hong’s most female-centric film in recent memory and by giving all men the cold shoulder he’s found a fresh-feeling variation on his otherwise familiar brand of conversation-heavy films.
Part two, which, like part one, runs about 25 minutes but is a little baggier and less prickly fun, follows a similar pattern, with Gam-hee visiting her friend Su-young (Song Seon-mi), a Pilates teacher and dance producer with bleached hair. They too talk about real-estate values and good neighborhoods and have a meal together, and Gam-hee again recounts the fact she has never been apart from her husband of five years for even a day — though given the film’s chronology, it must by now have been at least two days. Su-young too is disturbed by someone ringing her doorbell, though instead of complaining about cats, the man in question turns out to have been a one-night-stand of Su-young’s who talks as if they’d been married for years and he’s been forced into a trial separation.
The first two acts are relatively light and straightforward in tone — naysayers might even say “slight” — and it could be argued that at first sight, Gam-hee, played with gentle aloofness by Kim, doesn’t seem to really open up emotionally with either of her friends. But the last segment of The Woman Who Ran could upend expectations for those who are paying attention. Because after two-thirds of the film, it is still unclear who the titular woman could be and what she might be running from. Several clues are embedded in the closing part, in which Gam-hee goes to an art house theater and accidentally runs into her acquaintance Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), who works there.
(Potential spoilers in the next two paragraphs.) The fact that Gam-hee clearly wasn’t aware of where Woo-jin has been working for the past two years is already a little odd. Add to that the fact that their encounter is very much a coincidental, food- and alcohol-free meeting, something made more pronounced because it was preceded by two booze-sodden meals with friends that were very much planned and it becomes clear that Woo-jin isn’t an intimate friend like the other women. But there are other elements that hint at an intriguingly spiky if only barely hinted-at subtext as well.
There’s a brief moment in which the theater employee asks the protagonist for forgiveness for an undisclosed act. Gam-hee also runs into Woo-jin’s husband, who, like the other men, is practically only filmed with his back to the camera. He happens to be the aforementioned writer with the repetitive TV shtick and seems to be a potential key to unlocking the mystery of the title. Viewers who have been trying to read between the lines from the opening minutes will now have some ammunition to start building their cases.
Hong, who handled screenplay as well as directorial, editing and scoring duties, is in fine form here. His subtle and constant play with repetitions and variations allows him to highlight both continuity and abrupt change, while making it possible for viewers to slowly get a peek behind the curtains of the complex emotional lives of people who believe they aren’t betraying anything because they are just engaged in small talk. Perhaps this is the secret of the power of Hong’s cinema, as perhaps no one is as sincere as when they believe they are not giving anything away.
Production company: Jeonwonsa Film Co.
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Seo Young-hwa, Song Seon-mi, Kim Sae-byuk, Lee Eun-mi, Shin Seo-kho
Writer-director-editor–music: Hong Sang-soo
Cinematographer: Kim Su-min
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
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