Friday, September 26, 2014

NYFF ’14: Hill of Freedom

Why would a visitor from Japan spend so much time in Korean at a Japanese coffee shop? He is a Hong Sang-soo character, which explains a lot. As it happens, he is not in Korea to see the sights. He has come to woe back an ex-girlfriend. Unfortunately, she was not waiting to be wooed in Hong’s Hill of Freedom (trailer here), one of the Main Slate selections of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

Two years after Kwon dumped him, Mori has returned to Korea on spec, hoping to win back his former language school colleague. Finding her out of town left him at loose ends. Despite his intentions, Mori kind of-sort of gets involved with the characters at his Bukchon guest house and the Hill of Freedom coffee shop across the street from Kwon’s apartment. He even has a halting romance with Young-sun, the coffee shop manager. He will explain to Kwon just how he spent his time in Seoul in a series of letters he leaves for her at their old school. However, after dropping the untidy bundle, Kwon will read and the audience will see Mori’s story out of sequence.

Although it is an unusually concise sixty-seven minutes, Hill could still be considered a perfectly representative Hong Sang-soo film. The Korean festival favorite instills the proceedings with a bittersweet vibe, but it is more neurotic than sentimental. It is all about connections made and broken, told with a gentle narrative gamesmanship to keep us on our toes.

Ironically, South Korean most likely could not have submitted Hill as their foreign language Oscar submission, because nearly all the film is English, or rather the stiff, formal version of English that serves as an awkward lingua franca for the Japanese and Korean characters. That would presumably present some acting challenges, yet it seems to play to the strengths of sad-eyed, American-reared Japanese movie-star, Ryô Kase. He measures his words and plugs away in understated fashion, as a good Hong protagonist should.

It is a strong supporting cast all around, particularly including Moon So-ri’s remarkably open and vulnerable Young-sun. Korean cinema’s grand dame and Hong regular Youn Yuh-jung also adds some salty vinegar as the tart-tongued landlady. There are also the brief but memorable supporting turns from various visitors to the guest-house that seem to practically fall out of the sky.

If you like Hong Sang-soo movies, this is a very good one. It certainly captures the zone of futility, where romantic frustration leads to exhaustion, ennui, and confusion. Characteristically sly, Hill of Freedom is recommended for those who appreciate Hong’s intellectually advanced relationship chamber dramedies when it screens this coming Tuesday (9/30) at the Walter Reade and Wednesday (10/8) at the Gillman, as part of this year’s NYFF Main Slate.