'Hill of Freedom' ('Jayueui onduk'): Venice Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Short, slight and shock-free comedy retreading the Korean auteur's much-trodden tropes.

Hong Sang-soo's latest film unleashes Japanese star Ryo Kase as a lovelorn man searching for an old flame in Seoul.

Clocking in at just over an hour, Hill of Freedom is Hong Sang-soo's shortest feature film to date. And it's his most lightweight, as well, with the Korean auteur merely reshuffling his tried-and-trusted play on non-linear structure, camera movements and characterizations without offering anything decidedly new; even the act of casting a non-Korean actor in the lead — this time, Japan's Ryo Kase (Letters from Iwo Jima, Like Someone in Love) — is not exactly novel, given his 2012 experiment with Isabelle Huppert in In Another Country.

Still, Hong's accrued standing should ensure Hill another sustained festival run, after its bows at Venice, Toronto and New York — but it will certainly be a challenge for Hong's long-running reps Finecut to continue the run of international distribution accorded to his recent string of festival hits. Kase's presence, of course, might open doors to the Japanese market, depending on whether the audiences will warm to their A-list star's entirely English-conducted performance.

The title of Hong's film alludes to the name of a cafe central to the story: it's here that Kwon (Seo Young-hwa) settles in to read a batch of letters she received from Mori (Kase), a Japanese man she rejected two years ago. In those letters, Mori accounts for his efforts to track Kwon down and the people he ran into during his stay, and the friendship and relationships he somehow strayed into before, during and after the many liquor-fuelled dinners he has had.

Hill certainly boasts ample binging and bawling which marks a Hong Sang-soo film. And then there's the two-shot conversations which supposedly offer profound moments of reflection, when Mori variably fumblingly articulates his views  on the construction of reality, the impact of smell on consciousness, the impact of fear on existence, the stupidity of brushstroke description of national traits... and, of course, on man/woman problems.

Somehow, Hong seems to be operating in straitjackets this time round. This is signaled by how he has to explicitly account for his scrambled timeline by highlighting how Kwon is reading Mori's letters out of sequence, after she tripped and scattered them on the ground; those letters also provide a superfluous running commentary on actions which are better left unexplained.

And the behavior of his latest troupe of characters is somehow more emotionally stable and thus less vulnerable to moral ambiguity; in other words, it feels less like human nature, which Hong has thrived at poking and satirizing, perhaps much to the discomfort of chauvinist male viewers out there seeing his true colors being revealed. It's somehow also disappointing to see his ability to conjure nuanced female characters (as shown to devastating effect in his last film, Our Sunhi) vanishing from view here; Moon Soo-ri's cafe-owner character Young-sun is more a ditz (and a plot device highlighting Mori's tribulations) than anything else. Strangely, the less self-obsessed and sound-minded Hong's characters are, the less vibrant and subversive his films are.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons); also Toronto International Film Festival (Masters), New York Film Festival

Production companies: Jeonwonsa Film Company

Cast: Ryo Kase, Moon Soo-ri, Seo Young-hwa, Youn Yuhjung, Kim Eui-sung

Director: Hong Sang-soo

Screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo

Producers: Kim Kyoung-hee

Director of photography: Park Hong-yeol

Editor: Hahm Sung-won

Music: Jeong Yong-jin

International Sales:  Finecut

In English and Korean

No rating; 66 minutes