starring Kwon Hae-hyo, Lee Hye-young, Song Sunmi, Seok-ho Shin
directed by Hong Sang-soo
by Angelo Muredda A winding staircase serves as the connective tissue linking the disparate segments in Hong Sang-soo's Walk Up, a melancholy and self-deprecating profile of the Artist as a Depressive Loner that neatly tracks a middle-aged director's relationships, career, and health across his time spent on the various floors of his building. The prolific filmmaker's latest riff on his usual motifs--among them, social drinking, doppelgängers, and the awkwardness of film culture--sees him in a downcast mood, reflected in the minimalist set-design and black-and-white digital photography, as well as the none-too-hopeful attitude towards making and promoting art in a pandemic.
Hong's stand-in is Byung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo), a self-absorbed, taciturn man who drinks and smokes too much and falls in and out of relationships too easily. In the first section, Byung-soo and his tagalong daughter, Jeonsu (Park Miso), visit a building managed by his old friend, Ms. Kim (Lee Hye-young), an interior designer he hopes will show Jeonsu the ropes. After he wanders away for a phone call, the women take it upon themselves to plow through Ms. Kim's wine and spill some truths, in typical Hong fashion. When we next meet Byung-soo, he is a tenant in Ms. Kim's building, and Jeonsu is now her ex-apprentice. A chance connection with fellow tenant and restaurateur Sunhee (Song Sunmi), sparked here over four bottles of wine (not to be confused with the bottles drained in the previous chapter), reaches its nadir in the third section, which finds Byung-soo vaguely unwell, isolated, and unprepared to emerge from his COVID quarantine for a career retrospective, while Sunhee is itching to break down the door. The final chapter sees Sunhee gone in all but the parking tickets that still show up at the building, intercepted and rubbed in Byung-soo's face by a surlier and more insistent Ms. Kim, now the über-landlady, with Byung-soo relocated to the building's top floor, re-indulging some of his bad habits and allowing himself furtive ventures outside--at least onto the balcony--with a new girlfriend (Cho Yunhee).
The pandemic and its ill-defined off-ramps for the vulnerable and the homebody alike throw a wrench into Hong's cinema of drinking, flirting with the wrong people, and saying the wrong thing, as does his acknowledgement of his avatar's advancing age. Late-night soju binges and impromptu cafe discourses register as casualties of this new milieu--at least for a newly health-conscious Byung-soo and at least for now. COVID's ineffable effects on both protagonist and filmmaker, who tellingly did not travel to Toronto for the world premiere of a film where his doppelgänger resists international flights and deems the continued existence of festivals a minor miracle, adds tension to what previously has seemed a trifle, as well as an ambivalent wrinkle to the middle stretch, where a self-pitying Byung-soo moans and groans in bed while Sunhee ignores his texts, muttering that he's better off alone, anyway. It's a bleak but funny revision to the typical Hong discursive set-piece over drinks and food, his protagonist's inner circle shrunk down to one–to his resentment, and ours. There's real pathos, too, to the coda, which reveals the structure as something of a Möbius strip, the end looping back to the start. It's a gentle riff on how the pandemic has at once slowed and sped up our perception of time and made us mourn the mundane versions of ourselves who didn't know how small our world was about to become. Programme: Special Presentations