자유의 언덕 Jayuui Eondeok (Hill of Freedom, 2014)

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.

Hill of Freedom film posterCREDITS
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.

ライク・サムワン・イン・ラブ Like Someone in Love (2012)

Lately, I seem to walk as though I had wings
Bump into things like someone in love

The title of this film comes from an old jazz standard. If it’s a hint as to why the characters in the film act the way they do, it’s no more than just a hint. I’d call this latest film by Iranian director/auteur Abbas Kiarostami inscrutable if it weren’t for the overtones of orientalist cliché in such a term, yet surely few modern directors have crafted an oeuvre of such opacity as Kiarostami. Perhaps then this move to Japan for the setting of his latest film isn’t so far-fetched, though I can’t honestly pretend to any great fluency with either Iranian or Japanese culture; I sometimes feel lost dealing with etiquette and mores even in my own corner of the world.

Speaking of opacity, in writing recently about Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, I mentioned the way that the open endings put the resolution of the central drama back into the viewer’s control. This is the kind of narrative transference at which Kiarostami is a master, and when I talk about such a tactic, it’s films of his that I think of first. Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990), for example, works within a documentary framework, and when the sound in the final scene cuts out repeatedly, it prevents us from being sure what has happened between pursuer and pursued, while Zir-e Darakhtan-e Zeyton (Through the Olive Trees, 1994) ends with a long take in extreme long-shot of the two main characters (a woman and the man pursuing her) meeting in a field, too far away for us to hear anything or perceive more than just their body language.

In this new film, likewise, a man pursues a woman he doesn’t understand but feels he’s in love with. The woman is Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a university student who seems to moonlight as an escort, while the man is Noriaki (Ryō Kase), a car mechanic. Into the midst of their drama is pitched elderly professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) — not to mention the viewer, for the film starts in medias res at a crowded Tokyo bar. It’s an excellent opening, for we cannot be sure who is speaking, and so scrutinise the frame for the relationships between the people shown. Only gradually is it revealed the woman talking is on a phone and out of shot. The rest of the film unfolds more straightforwardly at a narrative level, but yet the question remains of who means what to whom (i.e. who is ‘like someone in love’).

It is fairly clear that Akiko is dabbling in prostitution (the ultimate pretence of love) while she is studying, and that she fell into it when she moved to Tokyo from the country, but nothing so sordid is expressed directly in the film, or shown. Takashi, meanwhile, has engaged her services, but is clearly not interested in sex. His motivations are only hinted at obliquely and never acknowledged: Akiko notes her similarity in appearance to a painting he owns, and to photos of his absent wife and another young woman (his granddaughter presumably). Indeed, he is mistaken for her grandfather by his neighbour and by Akiko’s jealous boyfriend Noriaki, and Takashi seems happy to pursue this role, going out of his way to help Akiko.

If in some ways, then, everyone is acting like someone in love, it’s equally clear that none actually has love: the objects of their respective affections push them away. Akiko betrays little hint of affection for either Noriaki or Takashi, and the only emotion she reveals towards anyone are the tears she sheds when she spots her grandmother, who has come into town to spend time with her but whose calls Akiko ignores. Even Takashi’s elderly neighbour speaks to Akiko of her spurned youthful affections towards Takashi.

These unrequited love connections are part of a wider discourse of disconnection in society, a theme Kiarostami has often touched on. His favourite set, after all, here as in so many of his films, is the interior of a motor vehicle, with its compartmentalised space, its windows (like a cinema screen) between the viewer and the world. It’s this disconnect between characters which largely motivates what happens in the film.

I haven’t spoken much about how the film looks. It’s shot on digital video, mostly in quite static compositions, but at its best it gets some beautiful effects, particularly a taxi ride through nighttime Tokyo. And yet undoubtedly it’s a slow-moving film. It can be difficult initially to discern the drama, but it’s there in all the shots, more pervasive than is perhaps obvious at first glance. The heightened attention required to spatial and visual relationships in the film may mean that the ending is almost too overtly dramatic, but it’s one I’ll want to keep thinking about as it only draws us further into these characters’ lives and motivations.

Sometimes the things I do astound me
Mostly whenever you’re around me

Like Someone in Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima 柳島克巳; Starring Rin Takanashi 高梨臨, Tadashi Okuno 奥野匡, Ryo Kase 加瀬亮; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 25 June 2013.