By John A. Riley
Some critics have characterised Hong Sang-soo's latest film as evidence of a prolific director running out of steam. In fact, Our Sunhi demonstrates a refinement and distillation of the director’s technique as he approaches an Ozu-like mastery of his craft.
Two films by the same director in a single year are bound to invite comparison, especially as Hong seems to be increasingly moving towards documenting female protagonists. Like the eponymous protagonist of Nobody's Daughter Haewon, Sunhi is a young women involved in the film industry (but whereas Haewon is an aspiring actress, Sunhi is a recent film school graduate), like Haewon she is irresistible to the men around her, and like her she is encumbered by a conspicuous backpack everywhere she goes. However, that’s where the similarity ends.
As the film begins, Sunhi returns to her alma mater to seek a recommendation letter for further study from her former tutor, Professor Choi. While on campus she runs into fellow student Munsu, a former lover who still pines for her. She also chances upon Jaehek, another film director whose gruff exterior belies his attraction to Sunhi. Soon all three men are furtively in pursuit of her. From these slender narrative elements, Hong crafts a subtle but spiky comedy of chance meetings, awkward conversations and romantic regret.
Sunhi herself is one of Hong’s most finely-drawn creations. Brought to life by Jung Yoo-mi, she's seemingly deferential but in fact shrewdly assertive. She soon shows she’s capable of anger when, in a hilarious scene, she loses her temper with a fellow student for lying to her. Lee Sun-kyun, in his fourth film for Hong, seems dog-eared and doleful, only able to express his desire for Sunhi in drunken hyperbole: “If I make films until the day I die, they’ll all be about you.” Kim Sang-joong plays the professor as smug but pathetic, writing a passive-aggressive character assassination for Sunhi’s reference letter, but then cravenly re-writing it in glowing terms once she reminds him – over several glasses of soju – of their past flirtations.
Although Hong’s subject matter is always resolutely quotidian, there’s a sense of the oneiric that creeps in from time to time. For a country as densely populated as Korea there’s a strangely empty feeling to many of the scenes; the professor sitting on a bench on a campus curiously devoid of the usual comings and goings, or the soulless fried chicken restaurant where Sunhi goes to get drunk. These near-deserted locations have the eerie feel that dreams sometimes have, and have the effect of magnifying the characters, exposing their mannerisms and eccentricities.
As usual Hong takes a breezy approach to his material, resulting in a film that barely feels its 88 minutes length. Those used to a more dynamic and varied film-making style may be discomfited by Hong’s preference for lengthy two-shots, laden with dialogue, in which the only major change is the amount of soju and beer bottles mounting on tables between the characters. But this is because, as Professor Choi tells Sunhi, “you can’t make films without working with people.” For Hong this means that characters and story always come before a preconceived idea or technical flashiness.
Beneath the formally modest but buoyant surface, more profound themes are lurking, as always with Hong's films. Sunhi says she’ll get round to making films “eventually”, after finishing the graduate studies she’s currently applying for. Professor Choi’s portentously delivered advice, to stop trying to “buy time” and to get on with the business of making film, coupled with the unresolved ending, seems to suggest that Korea’s most prolific independent director is telling us we should get on with things rather than procrastinate. On the other hand, Sunhi’s determined half-smirk when she replies that she’s thought about her decision seriously and that it’s too late give up, suggests a young woman who knows what she wants, and suggests a director with faith in the confidence of youth.
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