starring Kim Min-hee, Park Mi-so, Shin Seok-ho
written and directed by Hong Sang-soo
당신 얼굴 앞에서
IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE
starring Cho Yunhee, Kwon Hae-hyo, Lee Hye-young
written and directed by Hong Sang-soo
by Walter Chaw Hong Sang-soo's films, more so than most, are only ever about Hong Sang-soo--and in his mind, Hong Sang-soo is Henrik Ibsen: the iconoclast, the great social observer and auto-didact, the artist who, late in his career, shifted his observations from class concerns in general to the insular peculiarities of individuals imprisoned by lifetimes of secrets. Hong is now more playwright and stage director than filmmaker; increasingly, the act of capturing his interpersonal dissections on film has felt like an afterthought unto inconvenience. One gets the sense Hong would rather be left alone with his company of players like the playwright/theatre director hero of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, initiating a lifetime of rehearsals with no opening date in sight. I think, closer to the truth, he can't get out of his head anymore. Maybe it's no surprise, then, that two new Hong films are dropping simultaneously, given that both credit Hong as director/writer/editor (and, one presumes, sound engineer, gaffer, and craft services). In Front of Your Face is the less consumer-grade-home-movie-seeming between it and Introduction, though neither seems like something that took much time to put together, landing the same way as vignettes in a local one-act play festival might. Which is not to say there aren't pleasures to be had, only that these are less full meals than amuse-bouches served at a tastefully-set party to which you weren't necessarily invited.
Clocking in at barely over an hour, Introduction presents three short stories with the same characters overlapping at chronologically-indeterminate intervals. Young-ho (Shin Seokho) is an earnest, large-eyed young man, not old enough to stop taking advice from his disappointed mother (Cho Yunhee) but just old enough to, on a whim, fly off to Berlin to visit his girlfriend, Juwon (Park Miso), who has travelled there to study fashion and stay with the bohemian artist friend (Hong muse and lover Kim Min-hee) of her mother (Seo Younghwa). In the first section, Young-ho needs to visit his father, a physician, for some unknown purpose and finds himself stuck in the waiting room with a middle-aged receptionist he once told he loved. His father (Kim Young-ho), an acupuncturist, is busy ministering to a legendary stage actor (Ki Joo-Bong) he promptly forgets, leaving the actor a pin cushion for longer than he had hoped when he dropped in for a visit. None of that matters, except that all of it matters: Young-ho's awkward flirtation with a needy woman twice his age while his dad is pointedly busy at work, we gather, has more to do with Hong's self-reflection about how ego has hobbled his domestic responsibilities and left a trail of orphans for his attentions.
The second segment focuses on Juwon and her disapproving mother, their anxious meeting with the artist, and their relief when the mother's childhood friend turns out not to have changed as they had both feared. Indeed, Kim Min-hee plays another variation on the same character she always plays in Hong's films. She is ferociously intelligent, fiercely independent, honest to a fault, so beautiful that people can't help but compliment her, and so comfortable with her beauty that she's able to accept the attention with grace. But she's not as warm as she might be, perhaps, and she's the guardian of hidden chambers, we're sure. She's Hong's muse and his foil, too, his blindspot--and is that a little weariness of this image of her that I detect in Introduction? The film is such a blank slate that it's possible to project virtually any idea upon it and have it show up vivid and legible. That's the great gift of Hong's: If you like Hong and use film as a kind of Rorschach test, a means towards self-analysis, then his work offers a clean mindscreen upon which you can do that. The final segment puts Young-ho at a terrible lunch with his mother and the great actor wherein Young-ho is lectured about his decision to quit acting. Midway through, he excuses himself to take a walk on the beach, where he daydreams an encounter with Juwon, who is thinking about walking into the ocean. She's going blind, you see, a product of breaking up with Young-ho, but now that he's here, maybe her vision is returning.
Infuriating and silly but occasionally revelatory, Introduction would make a terrible gateway to Hong's films, but it functions as a fairly handy appendix to great works like his Woman is the Future of Man, Right Now, Wrong Then, and the actual best introduction to his 26-film-and-growing oeuvre, Tale of Cinema. It's also a fitting lead-in to In Front of Your Face, in which Cho Yunhee, as Jeon-gok, may or may not be reprising Young-ho's mom from Introduction. Jeon-gok's sister, Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young), has returned from years in the United States to stay with her for a while, sleeping on the couch in an autumnal, emptied-out Korea. Hong provides Sang-ok with an internal monologue obsessed with grace and acceptance, so we suspect, even before we find her sitting quietly watching Jeon-gok sleep, that there's something unwell with her. "You're too thin, you look ill," Jeon-gok chides her, and one of the common misconceptions of Hong as a subtle dramatist is handily dismissed. Hong writes for the theatre and Sang-ok, like the woman who plays her, was once a busy actress who doesn't get much work these days. In a sad conversation at a coffee shop, Jeon-gok discovers that her sister is destitute and has been working at a liquor store. She wonders how she could know so little of how her sister has spent her life and marvels at the time that has fled.
The rest of their day unfolds like Cléo's in Cléo from 5 to 7, i.e., brief encounters and a drinking session (another Hong hallmark) with a hangdog movie director (Kwon Hae-hyo) at an abandoned bar that plays like an outtake from Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress, with a fanboy meeting his immortal beloved and asking for one last glimpse of this onanistic silver screen totem, transformed now into a creature of limited time and diseased flesh. "It doesn't hurt," Sang-ok tells him, "but it will, and then I'll take medicine and endure it, and then I'll die." That's the train all of us are on--she's just on the express. She asks him if he wants to sleep with her and, after telling her about his wife and a son whom he wishes well, he says that he does. They share a cigarette instead, standing under an umbrella in the rain. It doesn't end like you think it will. I liked In Front of Your Face more than Introduction because it seems more emotionally invested in its characters. It's less...what's the phrase I'm looking for? Less "tossed-off." There were stories about how at the end of Picasso's life, he would sign napkins to pay his bar tabs, and if it worked once or twice, I'm going to bet it stopped working after a while. In Front of Your Face has a couple of moments I recognized as the artist feeling something true and painful instead of writing a thing that should theoretically be true but has lost power through repetition. I'm not enamoured with either of these films, but I never regret watching a Hong Sang-soo movie. I guess I just like his company.