Sunday, March 19, 2017

ND/NF ’17: Autumn, Autumn

Chuncheon is a popular tourist attraction among Koreans, because of its lakes and temples, and partly due to the hit K-drama Winter Sonata that took place there. However, there will be no melodrama for the three characters we follow as they drift through the resort town. They already understand life’s disappointments too well to indulge in any sort of cheap theatrics. Instead, they will attempt to find temporary respite from loneliness in Jang Woo-jin’s Autumn, Autumn, which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Ji-hyeon does not know the middle-aged couple, but he is sitting uncomfortably close to them on the commuter train. Although they seem to have an ambiguously romantic relationship, Se-rang and Heung-ju still seem awkward in each other’s presence. Splitting the film’s structure in two (and inevitably prompting a chorus of Hong Sang-soo comparisons in the process), Jang follows Ji-hyeon first. For reasons that are never fully explained, the recent college graduate is having an unusually hard time landing professional employment, so he understandably finds sleepy Chuncheon absolutely stifling. Yet, a horribly awkward encounter with a former classmate will ultimately yield small, but potently bittersweet revelations. Frankly, those will be Jang’s specialty.

When Jang shifts his focus to Se-rang and Heung-ju, they will revisit many of the same landmarks we passed through with the listless Ji-hyeon, but they will try to enjoy them as touristy day-trippers. It turns out they met through a Korean internet dating site, so you know they must be lonely. Technically, Se-rang is not divorced like Heung-ju, but it is doubtful her husband would notice or even care if she started having an affair.

As you should have assumed by now, Autumn, Autumn is not about plot, per se. Despite the parallel construction, it really is not about narrative gamesmanship (in the tradition of Hong) either. Arguably, Jang is not so far removed from the aesthetics of Kore-eda, closely observing his damaged characters in long takes, but inviting sympathy and forgiveness for them at every turn.

Lee Se-rang is utterly heartbreaking yet also affirmingly radiant as her namesake. Likewise, Woo Ji-hyeon’s performance as the graduate is almost shockingly open and vulnerable. Yet, for some reason Jang and Yang Heung-ju largely keep Heung-ju’s defenses up, so we never feel the same sort of empathetic connection to him. Still, he forges an undefinable rapport with Lee, helping facilitate her genuinely moving confidences.

Autumn, Autumn is a wonderfully wise and patient work that conveys the feeling of loneliness in a crowd as well as any of Tsai Ming-liang’s films. Granted, Jang does not have Hong’s wit, but he stays true to himself, never trying to compensate with undue whimsy or sentimentality. Highly recommended for those who appreciate mature human drama, Autumn, Autumn screens this Tuesday (3/21) at MoMA and Thursday (3/23) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF 2017.