Transcript of my filmed introduction to The Woman Who Ran (Domangchin yeoja) for the London Korean Film Festival 2020
Writer/director Hong Sang-soo was born into cinema. After all, his parents owned and ran the film production company Cinetel Soul. Still, he would study theatre not film, first at Chung-ang University, and then get a BA in California and an MA in Chicago. In 1996, at age 35, he made his directorial debut, The Day A Pig Fell Into the Well. Hong’s second feature The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) and third feature Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) were screened in the Un certain regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, and in 2004 his fifth feature, Woman is the Future of Man, was invited to screen in competition in Cannes. In other words, Hong arrived on the international scene very early in his career, and has ever since been a darling of festivals – and sometimes of arthouse – cinemas the world over.
In fact, when Woman is the Future of Man was at Cannes, it screened alongside Park Chan-wook’s OldBoy – the first time that there had been two Korean films in competition there – and by coincidence both films featured the actor Yoo Ji-tae. There is an irony here, because these two films could not be more different. Where OldBoy was a slickly made genre picture openly exhibiting a high degree of filmmaking craft, Hong’s films tend to eschew genre, drawing as much on Hong’s theatrical training as on the tropes of cinema. For Hong makes closely observed dramas, more focused on character and dialogue than on event or spectacle (indeed, I think it is fair to say that his films are spectacle-free). And while his narratives can be very sly and crafty, they typically conceal their art. Scenes are filmed in a disarmingly plain style, often without any cut – and while such long takes may be a signifier of a certain kind of austere arthouse cinema, Hong undermines any sense of formal austerity with the clumsy, faux-amateurish zooms and pans that have become a signature of his film’s cinematography. And then there is the tone of Hong’s films, which is typically light and breezy, as he contemplates characters caught in crises or dilemmas, often of an erotic nature, which are on a decidedly small scale.
Still, Hong’s simple seeming scenarios often hide considerable complexity. Occasionally his most naturalistic scenes will be exposed as dreams or fantasies or fictions. Many of his characters are artists or even filmmakers, which introduces a deeply reflexive element. And there are sometimes strange symmetries, echoes and repetitions in his films which point to a counter-narrative operating beneath the surface. I would hardly be the first to point out that Hong’s closest analogue is the French director Éric Rohmer, who similarly buries a great deal of narrative sophistication beneath a veneer of storytelling slightness. Hong is also a little like Woody Allen, both in his focus on the foibles of characters from a socioeconomic milieu not unlike his own, and in the prolificness of his cinematic output. Ever since, in 2010, Hong set up the Jeonwonsa Film Co. and started to control the production of his own low-budget films, there has been at least one coming out every year (and there were three in 2017).
His latest, The Woman Who Ran (Domangchin yeoja), is a film in which middle-aged, married Gam-hee reconnects with three old female friends on the outskirts of Seoul, and compares and contrasts her own situation with theirs. One of the women, Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa), is a divorcee with closer relations to her female ‘roommate’ (Lee Eun-mi ), to a young female neighbour, and even to the local stray cats, than to any man. Another, Su-young (Song Seon-mi), has never married, has made her own fortune, but is frustrated in her love life. The third, Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), is not altogether happily married to the man (Kwon Hae-hyo) – now a celebrity author – whom years ago she had stolen from Gam-hee.
All these encounters with other women combine into a mosaic mirror portrait of Gam-hee herself, who has, as she states repeatedly, ‘never been apart’ from her husband in the five years since they married, but who is conspicuously not with him now. Like the third floor of Young-soon’s home, which has been sealed off from entry, Hong’s tripartite film appears to harbour a secret. Part of the solution may lie in the casting of Kim Min-hee as Gam-hee – for Kim has not only become the regular lead in Hong’s films since she first starred in his Right Now, Wrong Then in 2015, but also notoriously conducted an affair with the married director for several years before leaving him – a piece of biography which may colour our understanding of the character she is playing here. Of course, the biggest hint at the secret subtext of Gam-hee’s solo trip come hidden in plain sight, in the film’s title.
As I wrote in my programme notes, The Woman Who Ran “is subtle and delicate – perhaps even slight – but viewers may wish to emulate Gam-hee when she returns to a cinema to let an apparently event-free arthouse film wash back over her a second time.” I hope you enjoy this film, and like me, find yourself lost for some time in its unspoken mysteries.
© Anton Bitel