Walk Up screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2023. This is a transcript of my onstage introduction.
Since his debut feature The Day a Pig Fell into the Well came out back in 1996, polyhyphenate filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has become a darling of Korea’s indie scene. It can be hard to keep up with his œuvre, though. For ever since he established his own fully independent production outfit Jeonwonsa Film Co. in 2010, he has made at least one, and often three features per year, and has produced 36 features to date in a career spanning only 27 years.
He has also been one of a very few directors, along with Kim Jee-woon, Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Lee Chang-dong and the late Kim Ki-duk, whose films have become staples at international festivals, of course including the London Korean Film Festival – and his films have even been known to get theatrical releases outside of Korea. He has been one of the key filmmaking figures of the Hallyu or Korean Wave, and his name is now cemented in the nation’s cinematic history.
He is also remarkably consistent. For Hong is a director who comes with a definite schtick, and it is quite easy to generalise about what characterises his body of work. His films, which are often rightly compared to those of Éric Rohmer in their breezy humanism and concealed sophistication, unfold in an unassumingly plain style, entirely without flash or spectacle, and show characters discussing, often while increasingly inebriated, their anxieties and aspirations, dreams and disappointments in life. Typically a lot of soju is drunk – although in Hong’s more recent films wine has become more prominent – and the characters are often artists or even in the film industry, allowing for an element of metacommentary about Hong’s own art. His films also tend to alternate between being full colour, or black and white.
Hong’s Walk Up is hardly an exception. A laid-back monochrome affair, it follows an indie director called Byung-soo, and his various visits to, or stays in, a single building over several years. Byung-soo is played by Kwon Hae-hyo, who has appeared in eight other Hong films to date, and who often seems to be a stand-in for Hong himself. As the chef Sun-hee (Song Seon-mi) sits opposite Byung-soo in her tiny restaurant on the building’s second floor, she will tell the director: “There’s a lot of talking in your films, but the dialogue never rubs me the wrong way.” The irony of these words is that, even as they describe a typical scenario from one of Byung-soo’s – or indeed Hong’s – films, Sun-hee and Byung-soo are at the same time themselves playing out just such a scenario, talking and getting drunk on wine which, later in the film, will self-consciously get replaced with the soju that typified Hong’s earlier works.
Byung-soo’s estranged daughter Jeong-su (Park Mi-so) will tell the building’s landlady Kim Hae-ok (Lee Hye-young) of her filmmaking father: “He’s well known outside, but to me he’s completely different. People have no idea. People admire my dad because of his image as a film director.” Hae-ok will reply: “We’re all different when we go out, we’re different inside and outside. Maybe the person he is when he’s outside is more genuine.” Like the restaurateur Sun-hee, Hae-ok is a fan of Byung-soo’s films – but more and more will be revealed of Byung-soo the person, who starts as an outsider and visitor to Hae-ok’s building before ever so gradually becoming an insider and resident. And by including these conversations in his film, and also by making his protagonist an indie filmmaker who is no longer young and perhaps even past his prime, Hong constantly flirts with the idea that he may also be revealing something of himself and his own inner life here. Indeed, much as Byung-soo dreams of shooting a future project on Jeju Island, Hong’s next film In Water (2024) would be made there. And yet if, as Jeong-su suggests, you cannot get the whole picture of a person like her father merely from watching his films, then the same of course is likely to be true of Hong. If this is a portrait of the director, it is inevitably oblique, distorted and incomplete.
In the opening scene of Walk Up, as Byung-soo arrives at the building and greets Hae-ok for the first time in years, she says, in what is the film’s second line, “It’s been so long.” Sure enough, even though its events are confined to a single, multi-storeyed space, this is a film very much concerned with time: the way it can pass in the blink of an eye – or in an invisible cut – yet change everything. Later in the film, Sun-hee’s restaurant employee Jukes (Shin Seok-hee) will express admiration for the classic Mini that Byung-soo has owned for decades and carefully kept in good shape. “It looks old,” Jules will say of the car, “but it’s so clean. Still powerful, too.” Jules might as well be describing Byung-soo himself, still virile and hungry for sex even as his body ages – and Jules’ words might also be regarded as extending to Walk Up itself, which is in many ways a classic Hong shot in old-school black-and-white, but still looking good and running along nicely.
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Programme note: “There’s a lot of talking in your films, but the dialogue never rubs me the wrong way,” says Sun-hee (Song Seon-mi) about the work of director Byung-soo, who first visits the building where Sun-hee runs her small restaurant to persuade the building’s owner (and his old friend) Ms Kim (Lee Hye-young) to take on his estranged daughter Jeong-su (Park Mi-so) as an apprentice in her interior design business. Byung-soo is played by Kwon Hae-hyo – not just a regular in the films of prolific director Hong Sangsoo, but here presented as a stand-in for Hong himself.
Confined to a single space – the interiors and exteriors of Ms Kim’s multi-storeyed, part-residential building – but making large, unexpected leaps in chronology, Hong’s monochrome tale of talk and time shows us where Byung-soo’s private and public selves differ, and how his relationship with all these women (and with his own work) shifts.
strap: Hong Sang-soo’s 34th feature confines an ageing Hong-like director to a single multi-storey building while ringing time’s changes
© Anton Bitel