For several years now, Sean Gilman and Evan Morgan have been discussing the latest Hong Sang-soo releases in-person, at film festivals, via Twitter and on their site, Seattle Screen Scene, including The Day After, Claire’s Camera, Grass, and Hotel by the River. Now, on the occasion of the New York Film Festival's presentation of Hong's The Woman Who Ran, the discussion continues here at the Notebook.
SEAN GILMAN: We’ve been doing these correspondences about Hong Sang-soo movies (corresp-Hong-dences?) for a few years now and I’m more curious than ever to know what you think of this one. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more surprised, initially at least, by one of his films. Hong seems to have reduced his cinema down to its barest essence: structure and subtext, while allowing the text itself to drift away into nothingness. A woman played by Kim Min-hee has three different meetings with old friends, women who live in an area around Seoul that she used to live in but no longer does (in this the film recalls Jeon Go-woon’s very fine film Microhabitat, from 2017). They chat, they eat, they go their separate ways as Hong’s camera drifts into the landscape, where a match cut moves us to the next phase of the film. In each section, one of the women is confronted by a man whom we primarily see from behind, perhaps an outgrowth of that sequence we found so disturbing in Grass, where a woman is interrogated by a figure we only see from behind and in shadow. Crucially, there appears to be no real plot, no ingenious twists of narrative or dream sequences, or doublings or any of the kinds of things Hong has spent most of the last 25 years exploring.
The friends’ conversations are normal, even banal. The first one has settled into a domestic suburban life, growing vegetables with her wife (girlfriend? lover? roommate? I’m not sure where Korea stands on this). The second friend lives in an apartment, still living the life of a single, independent artist (though she has a day job). The third works in a movie theatre and is in a relationship with someone Kim used to be involved with—we’re led to believe this was a source of conflict some time ago, but Kim insists that is no longer the case. The meetings with the three men undermine the more or less idyllic nature of the three women’s living conditions. In the first one, an obnoxious neighbor exposes the inherent and often deeply weird selfishness of suburban life. In the second, a young man appears to be stalking Kim’s friend after a brief hookup. In the third, Kim meets her ex and has a strained, if not exactly hostile, conversation with him.
While most of the conversations revolve around food (how much meat one should eat, whether or not one can peel an apple properly) and the self-deprecating niceties of conversation (nuances of which I’m sure that we, not being Korean, are missing a great deal), there is almost none of the expressive angst so common in Hong’s work. All that drunken philosophizing is sublimated below the small talk; it’s left to us to infer what the characters are really feeling. In this the film can be, at best, as baffling as real life.
This is Hong’s seventh film with Kim Min-hee, but I think they can be divided into discrete sections: Right Now, Wrong Then is a singular work, representing the transitional space between his films with Jung Yoomi and his films with Kim (along with Hill of Freedom and Yourself & Yours); the 2017 films (On the Beach at Night Alone, Claire’s Camera and The Day After) are more or less explicit commentaries on and responses to the scandal around their relationship; and this, Grass, and Hotel by the River are a new phase, one marked as much by Hong’s advance deep into middle age as by anything else. In the 2017 films, Kim is the primary figure, taking the Hong protagonist role and trying to navigating a complex of social and temporal realities. But in these later three, she’s mostly an observer: a writer in Grass; an accidental and temporary neighbor in Hotel by the River; and an old friend dropping by in The Woman Who Ran. No other traditional Hong protagonist moves in to fill the gap in these movies and as a result they are, superficially at least, more directionless, more ephemeral than any of his previous work. But maybe also because of that, the experience of watching them is much more emotional. Grass is harrowing at times, but ultimately heart-warming, while Hotel by the River is deeply lonely and sad. The Woman Who Ran though is bittersweet—wistful, but never melancholy.
In each of these films as well, Kim is explicitly tied to the natural world: plants in On the Beach and Grass, snow in The Day After and Hotel by the River, and the ocean in Claire’s Camera and The Woman Who Ran. Half of them are in black and white, and half of them are in color.
EVAN MORGAN: Sean, first off, apologies for the delay. It’s been longer than I care to admit since you sent me your opening missive, which, for reasons that were initially unclear to me, I let fester in my email unopened and unread as I dallied and dithered and watched a hundred films by a hundred artists, not one of them by Hong Sang-soo. A strange state of affairs for me, given my longstanding admiration for Hong and the clockwork pleasure that I take from these regular correspondences, both of which ought to have provided me ample inducement to work Hong into my quarantine routine. Then again, the affairs of man are rather strange more generally, and there’s no reason that my cinephilia should be immune from the multifarious crises currently befalling us. Still, it wasn’t until I finally sat down to watch The Woman Who Ran that it dawned on me what, exactly, had been keeping me away: I was trepidatious not because I would be returning to Hong’s world, which for me—as for you—continues to offer the paradoxical, and increasingly rare, pleasure of a retreat that is both familiar and surprising, but because I would be confronting the realities of our world and its recent surprises, wholly unfamiliar and most unwelcome. All of which is to say, this is the time of year that should find us meeting in person at some film festival in some global megacity, and I intuited, without quite knowing it, that the sting of that absence would somehow sting sharper in the presence of Hong. That’s probably because Hong is (I’m not yet ready to say “was”) an artist whose work is defined in interpersonal terms as much as aesthetic ones. Personally speaking, his films played a not insignificant role in the establishment of a number of cherished friendships (this one included!); but taken more broadly, I think it’s safe to say that his work has, with time, come to serve as a kind of film festival lingua franca. “What did you think of the new Hong?” is sure to apply a little social lubrication to the occasionally stiff mechanics of cinephile conversation; Hong, as reliably as soju, gets the conversation flowing. And my god, do I miss those conversations.
So, not unexpectedly, The Woman Who Ran struck me first as a triptych on friendship, a little disquisition on the essential emotional function performed by life’s peripheral characters: neighbors, former roommates, smoke break buddies. Certainly Hong’s previous films came populated with such people, often there to provide a boozy bit of camaraderie, but sexually fraught—if not forthrightly predatory—relationships long held primacy over the mutually affectionate, congenial, and often discreet bond between friends. If The Woman Who Ran really does put the interpersonal periphery at the center, so to speak, that might go some way towards explaining the lack of structural gamesmanship. And it would fit nicely with your phasic paradigm: in our discussion on Hotel by the River, we noted something similar, that the dynamic between father and son is, relative to the dynamic between lovers, too solidified to serve as the emotional tether for a malleable, mutating narrative. There, determinism rather than discontinuity reigns—the son survives the father, from time immemorial. There is simply no mystery. But perhaps Hong, in this current phase, is less interested in mystery than he once was, leaving the lovers at the door—backs turned—and banishing any remaining secrets to a locked room without a key (“What’s the secret of the third floor?” asks a half-waking Kim) in order to linger in the sadness and the solace of bonds that contain fewer potentialities. The Hongian motto “infinite worlds possible” sounds rather more like a threat when you’re old and tired and wanting to know in which world you currently stand.
A minimum of possibilities is, by another name, an essence; I think you’re right to see The Woman Who Ran as bare in some sense, almost blank. You mention that this current cycle of Kim collaborations is evenly divided between black and white and color films, as if Hong is careful not to betray a preference, but my sense is that the consensus, at least of the professional critical variety—or maybe more precisely, of the Cannes selection committee variety—weighs the scales in favor his monochrome work, perceiving degrees of aesthetic care in inverse proportion to the number of spectral colors on display. But any full accounting of Hong’s visual field requires asking a simple question, the kind one would ask about the work of any other filmmaker, even if it’s easy to imagine that Hong cloaks his movies in a self-consciously casual style precisely to evade questions like it: Why this color, and not another? The Woman Who Ran is an exceptionally gray film, dominated by silvers and charcoals and slates. Kim enters the film in a pewter mini-Cooper, driving down an asphalt road flanked by ashy concrete buildings. She arrives and finds, among other things, that the neighborhood “robber cat”—subject of the film’s funniest shot—is color coordinated to match. Later, she gifts Song Seon-mi a muted two-tone coat, with which Song promptly covers up her comparatively prismatic sweater. If, Sean, you are right (and I think you are) that The Woman Who Ran asks us to infer, more so than usual, what Hong’s people are thinking, what does it mean that the palette offers us nearly as little as the palaver? To put a finer point on it, do you find anything distressing about all this hesitant, neither black-nor-white banality? Or is it, as Kim says of the movie she watches in the third segment—which itself begins as a quiet study in gray—simply peaceful?
GILMAN: I wasn’t sure exactly how long it had been since I wrote the initial message to you. Time lost all particular meaning for me sometime around Easter, which I think was in March or April. I thought it had maybe been a month, but at the top of the document I’m writing this in now, I see I dated it June 23rd, which I believe was much more than one month ago. But I can’t be sure. Regardless, I watched the movie again after receiving your response, partially simply to refresh my memory, which like my sense of time has become increasingly suspect as the apocalypse drags on. But also because I thought it would gain some clarity the second time around, as has been the case for me with pretty much every Hong of the Kim Min-hee era. They each confound my expectations of what a “Hong Sang-soo movie” is in their own unique ways that it takes me a while to get a handle on them. Partly this is because their surfaces are so plain, not just in Hong’s style of course, which strives toward naturalism, but in their text. The banality of the surface begs me to focus on structure, rhyme and allusion and auteurist interconnection, and it usually takes me a couple tries to see clearly a whole Hong.
What strikes me most this time is the near perfect symmetry of the first two stories, and crucially how the third breaks from that pattern. The first two meetings are planned visits, the third is a coincidence. The first two are interrupted by a crazy man, and then continues with the two women, the third is interrupted by Kim watching a movie, followed by her meeting with a man, then concludes with her going back and watching the movie again. The first two conversations are natural to the point of boredom, their tension is all submerged: the petty squabbles of suburban life and a same-sex romantic relationship disguised as “roommates” (the secret beyond the third floor?) in the first story; the barely contained desperation of an aging single woman in the second (her try-hard wardrobe instantly rejects Kim’s more muted gift). But the third is full of classic Hongian humor: competitive apologizing masking still raw emotions, self-referential jokes at the director’s expense (“If he just repeats himself how can that be sincere?”). Kim’s performance is so serene and self-contained throughout the movie, but she starts to break down in the third part. Her insistence that she and her husband have never been apart in five years grows less convincing. And when she bumps into Kwon Hae-hyo at the end, her discomfort is palpable.
But to get back to your question, I think the final shot has the answer. After her confrontation with Kwon, Kim walks away, but then turns around and goes back into the theatre, where the formerly black and white ocean scene now plays in color. The Woman Who Ran thus fuses all the Kim-period films: Meta-Kim the stand-in for the couples’ real-life scandal (On the Beach at Night Alone, Claire’s Camera); and Kim the Observer, watching with deep empathy the stories of people whose lives have not turned out the way they planned or hoped (The Day After, Grass, Hotel by the River). The Observer can keep her distance, smiling politely at her friend’s inability to eat meat or drink coffee or alcohol (the only things worth eating or drinking anyway). She watches both her friends confront potential 26-year-old lovers through a security camera, seeing them in black and white, polite, but impassive, like the mountain that links the stories in match cuts.
But in the third story Meta-Kim sneaks up on her, in a movie theatre no less. In this version of the story, in what might be fairly considered to be a more than a little tacky inversion of the couple’s real-life conflict with Hong’s ex-wife, it’s Kim who has had her boyfriend stolen, and it is Kim who is apologized to, and Kim who still has unresolved feelings for the man who got away (the man who ran?), despite her repeated assurances that she’s perfectly happy and content. But it’s not just seeing him again that does the trick, it’s that turn back into the movie theatre, even though she knows he’s still there, that finally lets her see the ocean in color. If the first two stories allow Kim (and us) to see these visions of middle-aged hell (either suburban hostility and boredom or the pathos of aging bohemianism) from a distance, the third reminds us that we’ve all got our secrets, we’ve all got creepy neighbors, we’ve all got those people in our past that remind us of our own guilt and shame, those roosters pecking at the back of our head. But we’ve also got mountains and rain and cats and coffee. And we have to keep going back into it, the good memories and the bad, to see life in all its true color.
Or maybe that’s too cheesy a reading, especially for Hong, who has for so long been allergic to straightforward feeling and sentimentality. Maybe only the shot of Kim in the cab in the snow near the end of The Day After comes close to the sincerity I’m finding in The Woman Who Ran. What do you think? Does my theory hold together, or is it as fanciful as my reading that Claire, in Claire’s Camera, has a hidden time machine under the beach at Cannes?
MORGAN: Well, I doubt any theory that you can concoct to explain the events of The Woman Who Ran could rival your singular take on Claire’s Camera, a reading sufficiently ridiculous, I am told, that it wound its way to Director Hong himself, who reportedly found it quite amusing. That qualifies as some kind of cinephile merit badge, surely. Still, I don’t think either of us is especially concerned with explicating Hong’s movies, or any movies for that matter, so that our ideas might be presented to the author (figuratively, or in your case literally) in order for him to render final judgement. So no, there seems to me nothing remotely suspect about finding in The Woman Who Ran a series of echoes and variations that, when taken together, evoke emotions simpler than the structures which bring them into being. That is, in short, the function of poetry. If it is trite to say that Kim learns how to live in color, it is so only because The Woman Who Ran says the same, but with a keener sense of rhyme.
Where I might part with you is in my assessment of what, exactly, the stations on Kim’s journey signify. The domestic situation of the “roommates” is undoubtedly banal, and clearly vulnerable to the petty complaints of feline-phobic neighbors (who might well harbor phobias more toxic and more directly threatening to these women than a mere distaste for cats), but it is also warm and generative: the couple does maintain that small garden in their backyard, and they seem to find genuine success growing things there. Similarly, Song Seon-mi’s solitary life is, if not totally fecund, at least seeded with one or two possibilities: she recently met a man who, by chance, lives a few floors up. She doesn’t think there’s a romance to be had—he is married, after all—but perhaps something does come of it. And if it doesn’t, well, as Kim says, Song’s apartment is nicely decorated, and it has a great mountain view. In times of solitude, one can do a lot worse.
In other words, I find neither story particularly grim. Humdrum maybe, but not hellish. The final piece of the triptych does linger over a few old wounds that occasionally ache when touched, that’s true. Then again, you don’t make it to middle age without a little scar tissue, and, so long as they aren’t too debilitating, you eventually come to accommodate those ancient pains. So I’m not entirely sure that we should mistrust Kim Sae-byuk’s claims of contentment; it’s plausible that, rather than being dishonest, they are simply scaled to fit her life. That would suggest a greater degree of continuity between the first two stories and the third, each visit presenting Kim with a modest design for living, a template for sober, sensible adult behavior. She might try one out for herself, if her unseen husband ever returns home. But I don’t think so. This Kim, to borrow your terminology, remains the Observer.
One funny thing about Hong is that for all his film professor characters, for all his festival backdrops, for all his industry in-jokes, he is largely disinterested in cinephilia as a practice and a pathology. Yes, he captures perfectly the dread air of audience Q&As gone sideways, understands the navel-gazing tendencies of film school types, clearly, but fundamentally he is more interested in people who live around movies than those who live through them. That makes The Woman Who Ran something of a rarity, it seems to me: It is not, as so much of his work is, concerned with the artist in personal crisis; instead, like The Green Ray—a longtime Hong favorite—it uses a woman’s itinerant vacation to take measure of a certain cinephile personality. As you point out, in each of the three stories Kim is drawn to screens: in parts one and two, she’s left alone with those black and white CCTV monitors, watching as her interlocutors divert their attention away from her and towards other people, people with whom they share quotidian but tangible bonds, the very bonds that Kim—after five years of close knit domesticity—is unpracticed at navigating, and which she now accesses from a remove. It seems important, then, that in the final segment, the cinematic screen presents her not with another human interaction mediated by the camera, but with an empty beach—an image that harbors no pretense of social substitution—and doubly important that, after finishing the film and briefly returning to the world of human relationships, she walks back into the theater to watch it again. The chromatic bloom of the final shot, though not quite the natural miracle of Rohmer’s green flash, provides her a little mystic validation nevertheless. Kim, thrice presented with life, chooses cinema.
As I write this, I look up to see a scrim of gray smoke blanketing everything in sight. Life, in all its true color, still waits out there somewhere. But for now, Sean, I’m afraid the movies will have to do.