One of the most prolific auteurs in modern Korean art cinema is Hong Sang-soo, who has moved on stylistically from early, rather formalist pictures like The Power of Kangwon Province (1998, a film I adore), to a looser, more improvisational method. His films often feature central characters who are film directors or lecturers, who have desultory affairs with their young female students or film workers, and spend a lot of time moping about as a result (frequently including some glorious drunken acting scenes). Sometimes, though, he spins the scenarios so that the woman is more centred in the story, and these are generally the stronger films. His collaboration (professional and personal) with younger actor Kim Min-hee has resulted in a number of fine works, none better than On the Beach at Night Alone, made in a year of three films from him. This may pale next to some of the output of those 60s studio directors like Lee Man-hee, but in the current marketplace, it’s prodigious.
When an acclaimed ‘world cinema’ director makes their English-language debut, it’s usually that familiar route, by filming in an English-speaking country, or getting some more bankable English-language star as the lead. Prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo, however, may not perhaps be making the sort of films that attract interest from English-language producers, but he certainly isn’t the sort to do things in the customary way. Therefore, like last year’s Our Sunhi, what we have here is another entry in Hong’s increasingly familiar style, a sort of casual comedy of manners, still set in Korea, but with a Japanese protagonist (Ryo Kase as Mori) who doesn’t speak the local language, thus requiring most interactions to be in English. The setup is that Mori is in the country looking for an old flame, Kwon, but the framing story is her returning to find a bundle of letters from him, narrating his quest and his affair with a waitress called Youngsun (Moon So-ri). At some point near the start, Kwon drops the letters, so the scenes — flashbacks prompted by Mori’s words — come out of order. It’s all fairly slight as a setup, and indeed the running time is a very laconic 66 minutes, but there’s plenty of genuine humour, prompted by the second-language misunderstandings, the array of colourful smaller characters (including a hipster-ish Westerner), and the ersatz shooting style with its periodic zoom shots at moments of disquiet or confusion. Hong is certainly building up a persuasive body of work about feckless students and impulsive relationships, not to mention frequent scenes of drunkenness over restaurant tables, and it all serves to pass the time very agreeably.
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol 박홍열; Starring Ryo Kase 加瀬亮, Moon So-ri 문소리; Length 66 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 8 October 2014.
It takes dedication to continue making the kinds of films that Korean director Hong Sang-soo specialises in. He crafts slight, occasionally comedic relationship dramas with a handful of central characters, including at least one self-involved young man often chasing a young woman. Perhaps he’s going for a latter-day Woody Allen, and certainly his characters can at times be as infuriating as any in Allen’s comedies. Yet Hong’s films have their charms, perhaps for not sharing quite the same bitter worldview as Allen, putting him more in the company of French director Eric Rohmer.
Our Sunhi is no different from many of his films, though is a little more overtly comedic. It centres on the eponymous young woman (played by Jung Yoo-mi), who is in her late-20s and wants to pursue further study in the United States. She returns to her old campus film school after many years incommunicado, and there runs into a trio of men who all imagine themselves to have her special affections, though she is clearly wary of all of them. One is a fellow student, Munsu (Lee Sun-kyun), who was her boyfriend before she disappeared (and who has apparently since made a bitter film about their relationship). Another is a professor, Choi (Kim Sang-joong), from whom she wants an academic reference. The third is Munsu’s fellow filmmaker Jaehak (Jung Jae-young), and all three of course know one another — but not that each knows and admires Sunhi.
What follows is a delicate comedy of manners and misunderstandings, often conducted over restaurant and bar tables. Indeed, there’s a lot of drunk acting throughout, though, despite the omnipresence of chicken dishes, very little eating (they probably would have been wise to eat more!). And as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that each man has his own idea of who Sunhi is and what she’s like, and they keep forcing these opinions on her — to greater comical effect with each repetition, until eventually they’re left just telling each other about Sunhi in her absence. Hong seems to be self-aware about his propensity for writing films about enigmatic, unknowable women, as it’s the male characters here who repeatedly deny Sunhi her own identity, becoming in the process progressively more ridiculous.
It’s all very nicely judged, though it has an almost televisual quality to it with its two- and three-person setups, and awkward little zooms in on faces at key moments. It certainly has no grand pretensions as art cinema, which makes it refreshing in the context of a film festival, and it’s always good to see this kind of small, character-focused human drama.
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol 박홍열; Starring Jung Yu-mi 정유미, Kim Sang-joong 김상중, Lee Sun-kyun 이선균; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 15 October 2013.