by Patrick Preziosi
There’s no standard criterion for deducing the major/minor status of any given Hong Sang-soo film, which occur at such a steady clip that even the usual associative buzzwords—prolific, generous, obsessive, redundant even—fail at their most basic purpose. To speak or write of Hong (or to pitch him to the uninitiated) is to constantly make reference to an ever deepening body of work that generates its own caveats: the superficial cheapness, the playful reconceptualizing of narrative structures, and the director’s own personal life all exist as prerequisite mentions. It’s a double-bind for writers, navigating the threshold of an overly-referential candor to Hong’s career, while still keeping all the intended rhymes and transmutations within reach.
Hong films make it to festivals in spurts, so that by the time the New York Film Festival rolls around, there’s a good chance that there could be more than one in competition, just like 2017’s twofer On the Beach At Night Alone and The Day After, and this year’s Introduction (which premiered at Berlinale) alongside In Front of Your Face (coming just off the heels of its Cannes debut). Subsequently, weighing Hong films against one another––already a commonplace activity––is practically encouraged, zeroing in on the new minute formal differences that paradoxically carry significant consequence in a cinematic orbit that prioritizes the quotidian and unspoken. The more structurally ambitious film (Introduction) is only 65 minutes, whilst the more linearly cumulative is the one in color (In Front of Your Face), and so on and so forth.
In Front of Your Face retraces past territory in the form of voiceover, that, coming only six years after the last instance in 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then, still feels like an eternity. The interim has yielded a shift to a more moment-by-moment dramaturgy without the influence of a narrator. In Front of Your Face attempts to reconcile the previously burgeoning, off-the-cuff spirit with a bracing directness: whereas in the past, interiority was more meandering, Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young) delivers hers in the form of prayer. Although her missives are endearingly casual––they often have to do with an approaching event going smoothly––the lingering feeling is one of unease, a general atmosphere of anxiety that has necessitated this maintenance of faith. Sang-ok, a onetime actress and later liquor store owner, has returned to her native Korea after an extended spell in the United States, staying with her sister, Jeong-ok (Cho Yun-hee) in her Seoul apartment. The film begins in the morning, with the prospect of a late lunch meeting hanging over every mundane activity, just as there exists an undercurrent of confused resentment: Jeong-ok understandably tries to untangle her sister’s seemingly meaningless decisions, sometimes losing composure over the breakfast table.
Such prickly-edged languidness extends throughout the film, where scenes’ respective lengths are long enough to house transitional awkwardness between already strained conversations, the circuitous politesse spinning out with a painted-on grimace. Sang-ok is served multiple reminders of her past as an actor, such as a run-in with a fan in the park (played by a reliable member of the Hong stable, Seo Young-hwa), or the film’s tour-de-force third act, a loping conversation between the ex-actress and a younger director Jae-won (Kwon Hae-hyo), who tries to implore the older woman to return to acting. It’s a strangely affecting series of scenes, which descend into a sort of naked, discomfiting honesty at the behest of the baiju served. The drama both sustains and deflates itself, as aspirations compete with past selves, and mutual understanding remains only on the periphery.
Introduction’s run-ins are less formally conducted than those of In Front of Your Face, and thus more gaps in understanding proliferate, the pure incindentalness of the conceit taking over. Split into three parts (the first two of which are straightforwardly demarcated with a numerical titling), each section is predicated on a planned rendezvous clashing with––or at least influenced by––an impromptu one. Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho) waits for his relatively estranged acupuncturist father (Kim Young-ho), who himself is busy with an old friend (Ki Joo-bong, as a renowned theater actor) who has shown up to the office unannounced. Suddenly the film transplants itself to Hamburg, where Ju-won (Park Mi-so) takes leave from her mother and her mother’s friend who she’s subletting from (played by regulars Seo and Kim Min-hee) to meet her boyfriend, Young-ho, who’s flown the distance just to see her once more before her extended stay abroad. Finally, Young-ho, his only now elucidated dreams of being an actor dashed, goes to lunch with his mother (Cho Yun-hee) and the family friend played by Ki, the latter of whom brutally dresses down the young man for his sensitivity––asked to kiss another woman for a scene, Young-ho bowed out, not wishing to cheat on his girlfriend in any matter, real or fictional.
At the outset, the first two vignettes may appear to be optimal stages for combustible family spats, yet they instead resign themselves to intergenerational chilliness; the overarching lack of inter-family communicativeness is clinched by Ki’s gratuitous chiding of Young-ho, as the young man’s mother simply watches, only deriding her son’s sensitivity after he’s understandably ejected himself. Working backwards from here, the stolidness of the parents is only more pronounced: Young-ho’s father all but ducks him (and nearly everyone, as he often pulls the curtains on his patients, imploring them to rest awhile, and retreats upstairs to pray), and as Ju-won’s mother, Seo only allows for her outward impassiveness to crack open when in the sole company of Kim, like when the two smoke together at the window, as Hong ramps up the contrast so the harsh, bleached-out light of outdoors isolates the two women.
Untold time has passed between where Introduction begins and its final passage, as Young-ho stumbles upon Ju-won sitting on the beach, and the two discuss their breakup, her marriage, and her encroaching blindness, an almost cruel development that foists a harbinger of age upon the still young woman. All the latent sadness of the film surges at this point, although we’re left with something of an addendum of at least attempted catharsis. Young-ho throws his slender frame into the freezing ocean, as his mother watches from her hotel room balcony; neither actively acknowledges the other, and with the mother kept at a distance, Introduction pledges itself to its younger characters in its final moments.
Hong has a reputation for quietude, though the interactions of both In Front of Your Face and Introduction possess such potential for insults and ripostes that both films practically heave with relief when dialogue recedes. If one is to still (wrongly) think of Hong as a visually unmotivated director, the smoke breaks littered across the two films are effectively concise corollaries to such shortsightedness. In In Front of Your Face, Sang-ok traipses below a bridge to smoke, while her sister stays on the upper bank, as if to keep watch, the smiles volleyed back and forth between the two successfully forging a renewed connection more than their fitfully careworn parleys ever could. And in the first section of Introduction, Young-ho lights up a cigarette on his father’s back porch just as the snow begins to fall. Hong’s ability to render the penetrating qualities of cold weather palpable is in strong effect––bolstered by the black and white––but a literal and figurative warmth radiates when Young-ho hugs his father’s secretary, perhaps the only empathetic adult in the entire film. The professional, familial and personal past can be abjectly stricturing, but Hong’s plainspokeness in the necessity of evading such pitfalls is touching nevertheless, a taciturn acknowledgement of the inevitable fissures between siblings, peers, or parents and children.