The Woman Who Ran, the title of Hong Sang-soo’s new picture, refers to a woman who disappeared from her family, especially leaving her daughter distraught. This mother is never referred to again, but its possibility—that of a woman leaving her life behind—gently haunts the entire picture. This is because this title could also refer to the film’s ostensible heroine, Gamhee (Kim Min-hee): In three separate episodes, she visits or meets female friends and claims to be away from her husband for the first time in five years. “He says that people in love should always stick together,” she says to each woman, in a repetition familiar to the work of this South Korean relationship surrealist. Stepping out of her marriage into the bubbles of other lives, she casually surveys the realm of a divorcee, a single thirty-something, and the woman who married Gamhee’s high school boyfriend. Across these episodes, each typically lackadaisical and wry in the manner well-known of the filmmaker, she discovers alternate paths she could have taken, other women she could be.
Despite being the heroine of each of these stories (like Isabelle Huppert throughout In Another Country), Kim’s role is mostly that of an observer, like her character in Hong’s Grass, watching the world’s drama before her. She is never in a place of decision-making or agency, and instead the film should be taken as several reveries she has when pondering her place settled in life. Certainly the spare hints of her marriage seem tepid at best: When asked if she loves her husband, she remarks that “it’s nothing you can prove.” In the first episode, the divorcee (Seo Younghwa) sticks to gardening on the city’s outskirts, has given up meat, has a female roommate, and hopes for her ex’s failure. When her roommate (Lee Eunmi) encounters an obstinate and rude male neighbor, who insists the women stop feeding local cats, he is taken to task for his small-mindedness. (This scene, a comic highlight of the film, is rippled with Hong’s gloriously uncomfortable social awkwardness, and climaxes on one of the finest appearances of a cat in cinema, prompting spontaneous applause and delight from my audience.) In the second episode, the single woman (Song Seonmi) berates a man she slept with for being a stalker; when asked why she slept with him the first time they met, she remarks, “I thought about it, and just did it.” She lives in an architecturally beautiful city apartment and pines for the poet who lives above her.
In the third episode, Gamhee is attending a film screening and bumps into a woman (Kim Saebyuk) who is awkward and at pains to apologize: She is now married to a man Gamhee once dated. All forgiven, the woman laments her spouse’s ego, his talkativeness, his repetitiveness (a sly wink to Hong’s cinema), and how he’s changed since high school—for the worse. Finally, Gamhee herself runs into a man, this old flame, another path her life could have taken: “I feel comfortable,” she says to the awkward man, “you’re uncomfortable.” Earlier in the picture, the vegetarian divorcee tries to explain away Gamhee’s craving for meat but desire to give it up: “Our minds and bodies are totally separate.” This remark perhaps unlocks the whole picture: Gamhee is a woman whose mind has run where her body cannot, and imagines a world without her husband. The film, as light and off-hand as it frequently seems—especially the second and weakest episode—thus throughout has a pensive aura. It proposes a world with no dead ends, but certainly three possibilities of melancholy.