Blu-Ray Review | Three Films by Hong Sangsoo


Hong Sangsoo films often have a lovely way of doubling back and re-contextualizing themselves - 2010's Oki's Movie, (along with 2015's Right Now, Wrong Then) is perhaps one of the purest examples of this tendency, as Hong explores the story of a love triangle through four interconnecting short films. In true Hong fashion, several characters are filmmakers and the films we are watching are often meant to be creations of the characters themselves. There's Jin-gu (Lee Sun-kyun), a young filmmaker desperate to impress his teacher, Professor Song (Moon Sung-keun), and then there's Oki (Jung Yu-mi), a film student romantically linked to both the younger and the older man at various points throughout the film, whose final entry in the quartet of shorts recasts both men with lookalike actors to help her understand her how their relationships came to be and how they ended.

There's a more DIY kind of feel to Oki's Movie, even among his mid-period works, but that also goes hand-in-hand with the central conceit - that we are watching four short films by student filmmakers. The artificiality here is the point, and you can feel Hong's frustration that truth in cinema seems elusive and ephemeral. The first three films are something of a mixed bag, but that's part of Hong's genius, because the fourth and final film recontextualizes what we've seen up to that point so beautifully. Hong is constantly seeking truth, interrogating his own work and point of view, and finding that "truth" may be impossible to find in film - that what we are seeing will always be a facsimile of truth and never fully represent the complete ideas they seek to explore. There's something deeply sad and a bit self-reflective about OKI'S MOVIE that is difficult to shake, a film whose rewards continue to reveal themselves upon reflection rather than in the moment.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


There's a moment early on when it feels like Nobody's Daughter Haewon is about to be Hong Sangsoo's answer to Yasujiro Ozu, as the film appears to center around the relationship between a young woman named Haewon (Jung Eun-chae) and her mother, who is about to move from South Korea to Canada. It's clear that losing her mother is having a deep emotional impact on Haewon, and forcing her to confront fears of loneliness and loss she never thought she'd have to face head-on. But the mother quickly exits the picture, leaving Haewon to deal with the fallout on her own, and any comparison to Ozu quickly goes out the window. 

This is a film about parents and their children, to be sure. But in true Hong fashion, it's deeply introspective and even elliptical as it examines and re-examines Haewon's mental state. Without her mother in the picture, Haewon reconnects with old lovers, (namely her professor, a film director played by Lee Sun-kyun), old friends (Ye Ji-won, reprising her role from Hong's Hahaha), new friends (a screenwriting expatriate working with Martin Scorsese, played by Kim Eui-sung), an old boyfriend (Yu Jun-sang) who is jealous over her new relationship, and even a chance encounter with actress Jane Birkin (as herself). Keeping her relationship with the married professor secret begins to weigh on Haewon, and much of the film unfolds as a series of stress dreams that she has while napping in a university study room. These dreams reveal a lot about Haewon's hopes and fears, revealing fantasized scenarios that juxtapose with the more mundane reality she's living. What's revealing though is that even in the physical absence of her mother, it's clear that her mother has cast a long shadow, and it is that absence that now informs her life. 

Nobody's Daughter Haewon is, perhaps, one of Hong's most formally lovely works. The mist-shrouded atmosphere of the final dream sequence makes for some of the most evocative work of the filmmaker's career, and the final reveal is so heartbreaking, because it reveals so much about Haewon's loneliness and her desperation to be her own person, even as she continues to define herself by her relationship to others. Rarely do Hong films feel so boldly emotional, but this stands as one of the pinnacles of his "middle period" films.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

OUR SUNHI (2013)

There's something deceptively lovely about Hong Sangsoo's Our Sunhi, a film that simultaneously stands out from and embodies the essence of Hong's middle period films. Here we have yet another disaffected young woman, another love triangle, another climactic meet-up that allows the protagonist a moment to take hold of her own story. But Sunhi (Jung Yu-mi) might just be Hong's greatest protagonist, an unwitting muse that seems more bewildered than flattered by the fixation of her suitors, who refuses to be a supporting character in some man's story.

Sunhi's credulity at being the muse for one of the film's three me (a filmmaker, natch) can retroactively be read as foreshadowing for Hong's own relationship with actress Kim Min-hee, whose presence dominates his later period work. So much of Hong's work feels like self reflection and self criticism (see the myriad imperfect filmmaker characters that populate his filmography), that it's difficult not to look at Our Sunhi as a sly bit of self flagellation. Because the three male characters are quite a bumbling assortment of suitors, and Sunhi, who has recently returned to school after an extended and unexplained absence, manages to upend all three of their lives. It's clear, however, that Sunhi is far more interested in figuring herself out that being anyone's muse, and while she occasionally uses her suitors' affections to get what she wants, she soon discovers that what she wants and what she needs are totally different things. 

Our Sunhi sneaks up on you in the way that the best Hong films do. And its finale mirrors the final encounters of both Oki's Movie and Nobody's Daughter Haewon, but here it seems more hopeful, a woman taking control of her own narrative. If Kim Min-hee would later become a kind of angelic figure in Hong's films, here Jung Yu-mi is an imperfect woman who refuses to be idealized by men, and chooses to explore and acknowledge her imperfections on her own terms. It's a lovely, warmhearted film that stands tall as one of Hong's most incisive and most boldly self-critical achievements.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Cinema Guild.


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