Saturday, July 24, 2021

Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran

Miles Davis used to perform with his back turned to the audience. The men in Hong Sang-soo’s latest film are not that cool. Instead, they are a rather neurotic lot, so Hong focuses on the women they are trying to talk to instead. Those would be Gam-hee's old friends, who she sets out to visit in Hong’s The Woman Who Ran, which is currently playing in New York.

When Hong’s film had its festival debut last February, Gam-hee might have sounded a bit unusual for spending every single day of the past five years with her husband. One pandemic from Xi Jinping later, a lot of people are over a fifth of the way to that milestone themselves. Regardless, when her loving spouse was suddenly summoned for a business trip, she decided to take advantage of the opportunity to visit two old friends. She will also have a supposedly chance encounter with a third former classmate. With the three-part structure, Hong renews his affinity for parallel theme-and-variations.

Young-soon is divorced and living happily with a younger roommate, but both women just show disinterested contempt for the neighbor who comes to complain about the stray cats they feed (his wife has a cat phobia). After years of caring for her mother, Su-young now lives carefree in a building catering to artists. She is cautiously exploring a relationship with an architect, but embarrassingly, it is the young poet she mistakenly hooked-up with who comes calling. Gambee was not expecting to see Woo-jin, but she works in the arts center, where the restless woman popped in to see a movie. It turns out they have something in common: Jung, whose face we briefly see, so that we know he is played by Hong’s regular alter-ego, Kwon Hae-hyo.

There is a bit of the old playfulness in
Woman Who Ran that has been largely missing from Hong’s post-scandal films, especially in the way he so deliberately keeps his male characters faceless. It is still a “small film,” but most of his films are “small.” In this case the big revelation and payoff are mostly implied, but its subtlety is definitely its strength. Arguably, this might be his best film with Kim Min-hee since Right Now, Wrong Then, which was before their tabloid notoriety.

At first, Kim is more of a facilitator as Gam-hee, drawing out Seo Young-hwa and Song Seon-mi, as Young-soon and Su-young, respectively. Each offer interesting but very different portrayals of confident, older women. However, Kim is really terrific opposite Kim Sae-byuk’s Woo-jin in their super-awkward but surprisingly touching scene. Frankly, her confrontation with Jung is a bit of a letdown in comparison.

This is a quiet film, even by Hong’s standards, employing only occasional fragments of soundtrack music. However, it features some lovely performances and a bit of the old Hong mischievousness. Recommended for fans of the auteur and his brand of wryly observed relationship drama,
The Woman Who Ran is now playing in New York.