The English titles of Hong Sang-soo’s stilted comedies are always interesting. Sometimes they simply describe a situation in the plainest terms: Hotel by the River or The Day He Arrives. Other times they seem to be taking the piss: Like You Know It All or Right Now, Wrong Then. The title of his latest, The Woman Who Ran, would seem to qualify for the former category, except that the protagonist is a woman who doesn’t seem to be running at all, either towards something or away from it. Or maybe she is but we probably wouldn’t realize she is without Hong telling us that upfront. A common characteristic of Hong’s films is that they often address formalism as an end in itself, and sometimes the plots are simply there to prove a point about how stories can be told. The Woman Who Ran has its own unique formalist aspects, but since Hong has said repeatedly that he doesn’t know what he wants to do with a film until after he starts making it, it may be reading too much into his latest movie to say that the strict tripartite structure has more to say about the characters than the dialogue does.
Gam-hee (Hong regular Kim Min-hee) visits three friends during the course of the 77-minute movie whom she hasn’t seen since she married five years ago. In fact, as she tells all three, she hasn’t been separated from her spouse for even one day during the last five years, but he had to go on a short business trip so she thought she’d catch up on some old acquaintances. The first visit is to Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa), who, having divorced her own husband, is now living with a female companion on the outskirts of Seoul where she grows vegetables and raises chickens (“roosters are mean”). The second visit is to Su-young (Song Seon-mi), who teaches Pilates and has recently moved to an upscale apartment with her savings. The last visit is unintended, or, at least, it seems to be. Gam-hee takes in a movie at a small art house cinema and upon leaving discovers that it’s managed by Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), whose husband was once Gam-hee’s lover. In fact, their reuniting is fraught with awkward tension, since the romantic changeover led to bad blood between them.
Most of the dialogue throughout the three encounters is purposely anodyne, the usual boilerplate topics between old acquaintances like real estate, family situations, and work issues. Gam-hee, in fact, rarely betrays any problems in her life, and thus it’s implied that she’s taking the opportunity of her husband’s absence to re-explore the idea of freedom. But that’s not the real point of the movie, which mainly comes into its own when men literally enter the picture. After each of the three chats, a man intrudes on the women and makes demands. In the case of Young-soon, it’s a neighbor who objects to Young-soon feeding neighborhood stray cats, which he says “scare my wife,” and though the exchange is polite, the man’s insistence is very creepy. In Su-Young’s case, the intruder is a young poet who has been stalking her after meeting her in a bar one night. He insists on knowing why she keeps rebuffing his advances. In the last scene, Gam-hee runs into Woo-jin’s husband, meaning Gam-hee’s old lover, a successful but somehow disillusioned writer who doesn’t believe that Gam-hee encountered his wife “by accident.”
In all three cases the meetings are comically contentious and point up the kind of male petulance that Hong has reserved as his own cinematic bailiwick. In all three scenes, the men are filmed from the back, as if their very existence is unwanted. The Woman Who Ran may be Hong’s most female-centered movie in that men are not only unnecessary, but insufferable in the greater scheme of female companionship. It’s a theme he’s explored before but never this plainly or, dare I say, hilariously.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
The Woman Who Ran home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2019 Jeonwonsa Film Co.