(The 24th feature from Hong Sangsoo, The Woman Who Ran, is now playing in select theaters. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)
The films of the prolific South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo can, to this critic, often irritate, meandering as they are of structure and plain of aesthetic. Hong is also too much a fan of the zoom and reframe for my taste, choosing that method of coverage rather than a wide master combined with a variety of shot/reverse shots. It’s always good to shake things up, and any kind of unique mise-en-scène should be celebrated…as long as it brings something of interest to the storytelling, which is not always true in Hong’s case. Given that so many of the director’s movies also focus on the male gaze and heteronormative, if neurotic, sexual longing, one might think of him as a Korean Woody Allen (minus, we hope, the alleged incest), a comparison made even more apt by his long-term affair with his actress-muse of choice, Kim Min-hee. If I sound ambivalent about Hong’s work, it’s because I generally am, which is why The Woman Who Ran, his latest, comes as such a welcome surprise.
Here, Kim (The Handmaiden) plays Gam-hee, a variation on the usual lost soul, male or female, who takes up cinematic space in Hong’s head, who finds herself free for a short spell while her husband is away on business. Otherwise almost constantly by his side, as we learn, she takes advantage of his absence to visit with old friends, all of them other women, hearing about their lives and sharing about hers. As always, there is little plot, though the interactions and conversations prove gently charming, Gam-hee appearing to blossom on her own, even as she claims happiness (to the point of bliss) in her marriage. In this way, Hong subverts the notion of male prerogative that he so frequently explores. We never meet Gam-hee’s man, and we don’t need to. Slowly, without us quite realizing it, we are sucked into a narrative we didn’t see coming, watching as she makes her way forward to the actualization of her repressed self.
The ensemble includes many other Hong regulars, among them Song Seon-mi (Hotel by the River) and Kwon Hae-hyo (The Day After). Indeed, watching one Hong film after another, they all begin to blend together, earlier works flowing naturally into the present. Characters previously played by the same actor become something similar but different, cousins to former iterations. And yet in The Woman Who Ran, presaged by the title, itself, we sense an evolution. Though Gam-hee gives no indication that she is contemplating any great change in her circumstances, we end on an image of her in a movie theater, watching, for a second time, what she formerly called a “calm movie,” of waves breaking. She could go home, but pauses. This ostensibly innocuous solo trip has made her appreciate the joys of thinking for herself. Now the work begins, perhaps.
Each set of scenes introduces us to new friends and acquaintances, the dialogue just enough to offer backstory for context without overwhelming with exposition. Indeed, the subtlety of the writing and direction are enchanting, drawing us ever more into Gam-hee’s state of mind. Even the ubiquitous zooms feel organic to the piece, pointing our eyes exactly where they need to be in the right moment. They become the perfect metaphor for Gam-hee’s journey: a seeming voyage to nowhere that arrives at a destination both preordained and unexpected. Run, Gam-hee, run: the surprise of the unknown awaits.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)