Hong Sang-soo continues his relentless pace without seeming to break a sweat, and here we have two new features opening the same day in Japan, both manageably short enough to qualify as a succinct and stimulating double feature. Hong’s films are so much alike, thematically, stylistically, and formally, that some may find the distinctions between these two academic. One is in B&W, the other in color; one has a strict tripartite structure, the other a linear development; one is minimalist to the point of almost non-existence, while the other explores a weighty existential situation–or maybe it doesn’t.
Introduction, the shorter and less effective of the two, is one of Hong’s exercises in narrative indirection. The first part takes place in an acupuncturist’s office, as the doctor (Kim Young-ho) treats a famous actor (Ki Joo-bong) for a chronic problem while a young man (Shin Seok-ho) sits in the waiting room for what feels like a very long time. The relationships of these three, as well as the young man’s with the receptionist, are teased out until the end of the segment, when the most important one is finally revealed. The second segment focuses on a young woman (Park Mi-so) who is moving to Berlin to study with help from her mother’s friend (Kim Min-hee), a resident of the city, but her discussions with the friend are interrupted when her boyfriend, who turns out to be the young man waiting in the first segment, shows up unexpectedly because he says he misses her. This kind of awkward situation is something Hong is particularly good at, though the viewer’s patience may be strained by the odd dynamic that develops as the lovers try to make sense of their relationship. As in the first section, the young man acts as if he’s being ignored and is hurt by his girlfriend’s move, which he takes personally. The young man shows up again in the third section, which seems to be taking place some years later at a hotel where his mother (Cho Yun-hee) and the actor from the first section are lecturing him, sometimes violently, about his lack of direction in life. Hong may seem to be challenging the viewer to fill in the plot lacunae between the three sections, but each one is filled with false starts and often hilarious non sequiturs so taking the “story” at face value would probably be a mistake. The young man’s rudderless life is more indicated than shown, but that doesn’t make it less compelling. It does, however, make it less believable. It’s as if Hong were challenging himself to say something interesting about a patently boring, annoying character, but he’s done that before, and better.
As slyly suggested in the title, the indirection in In Front of Your Face is more cinematically conventional. First of all it takes almost fiften minutes before the viewer realizes that the protagonist, San-gok (Lee Hye-young), is a famous actress who has spent the last several years of her life in the U.S., to which she followed a man she has now left. Presently, temporarily, she is sleeping on the couch in the Seoul high-rise apartment of her sister, Jeon-gok (Cho Yun-hee), with whom she spends a leisurely day drinking coffee in a shop with a breathtaking view, strolling through a park where she is recognized by some young fans, revisiting the house where she grew up, and meeting her nephew (Shin Seok-ho, yes the actors play out the same familial relationship as in Introduction), who runs a successful restaurant. The conversation is quotidian and less voluble than it is in most Hong films. San-gok seems to rue anything that smacks of small talk. Late in the afternoon, however, she meets a movie director (Kwon Hae-hyo) who wants her to be in his new film, which he will write just for her, thus making it clear that she has been out of the game for a while. For once in a Hong film, the dialogue is clearly expository, as the director says he knows her work “intimately” and, in fact, has always had a crush on her. San-gok blithely asks him if he had been planning on sleeping with her, and he frankly replies that, yes, it had crossed his mind. Then San-gok tells him something that changes not only the whole mood, but the whole movie.
In a sense, the viewer never quite recovers from this revelation, though the movie continues on as if nothing has happened, and I, for one, really wondered if what I was understanding was actually what was going on. In many ways, In Front of Your Face may be Hong’s most emotionally affecting film since it shows how phony cinematic melodrama is when played out in situations that are closer to how we live day to day. Then again, he could be taking the piss. I saw it several weeks ago, and I’m still wondering what hit me.
In Korean. Both films open June 24 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
Introduction and In Front of Your Face home page in Japanese
photos (c) 2020 & (c) 2021 Jeonwonsa Film Co.