Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: The Delightful and Subtle Nobody's Daughter Haewon Proof of Narrative Genius

By Patryk Czekaj

Hong Sangsoo is an undisputed master of low budget, dialogue-driven, ambiguously satirical films that reveal the truth about human relationships in a most sincere and emphatic way. Due to the alluring but mostly down-to-earth ambiance on the surface, those pictures might look ordinary for first-time viewers. Yet, after subsequent viewings it becomes evident that the pleasure of discovering the genius behind Hong’s creations is a fascinating adventure in itself. Due to an impressive number of distinguishing characteristics, most notably maze-like storylines, uncertain timelines, specifically planned repetitions and well-developed characters, Hong has gained critical acclaim as one of the most imaginative and unconventional Korean art-house directors.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Hong’s 14th feature, clearly follows that distinct and elaborate formula developed by the artist over the course of time. Here, however, unlike in most of his creations, the film is presented from the perspective of a woman, the titular Haewon (novice Jung Eun-chae). She’s the protagonist responsible for how the viewer perceives the whole story, and her overtly emotional attitude is the key to understanding the complexity of her relationship with another important figure, Seong-joon (Hong regular Lee Sun-kyun).

The picture’s walk-and-talk narrative closely examines Haewon’s personality as well as her illicit love affair with the aforementioned Seong-joon. The viewer’s first rendezvous with the eponymous girl takes place in an unknown restaurant, as she anticipates a farewell meeting with her mother. Prone to falling asleep in public, she has a vivid dream about a chance encounter with Jane Birkin. In this truly hilarious and awkward scene it appears that the famed actress (played by herself) isn’t able to resist the girl’s overpowering charm. And from this early and supposedly insignificant point the storyline begins to follow a specific pattern, as if trying to show how Haewon casts a spell on all the individual characters, who one by one follow her mindlessly in order to express their admiration.

After an honest but brief meeting with her mother, Haewon is alone again. Feeling sentimental she calls Seong-joon, her acting school teacher and ex-lover. Obviously something went wrong the last time, but because of her miserable situation Haewon decides to give the man a second chance. Though in that first part of the film she comes as a rather fragile girl, it’s only an illusion carefully designed for Haewon to manifest her true self later and in a more expressive way.

It’s actually Seong-joon who lacks charisma and self-confidence. He isn’t able to cope with all his romantic problems and eventually appears as a weak and insecure character, whose forced laid-back attitude and sudden outbursts of anger can make the viewer strangely uncomfortable. Although Haewon realizes that the man’s emotional instability might lead to a disaster, she still longs for his presence and for the feelings that they once had.

Haewon’s uncommon beauty makes her a dream-girl material for all the men, who try to grab her attention while she walks carelessly down the streets of Seoul. Though to an unobservant passerby Haewon may seem foolish, she approaches life very rationally, always trying to be a step ahead of her interlocutor in order to omit a situation in which she might get hurt. She impulsively bases her rational judgment on previous experiences and that ultimately makes her a strong figure, even though most of the gestures and facial expressions point to the contrary.

She subconsciously loves the company of males and openly thrives when she meets a gentleman who is worthy of her precious time. Sometimes when she chats comfortably with strangers it feels as though all of her troubles disappear, but just a few moments later it becomes apparent that even the most adorable and eloquent of her admirers are no still match for Seong-joon, for whom Haewon expresses a variety of feelings that often alternate between love and hatred. And in a bar scene that’s revealing, heartbreaking and disquieting, we learn that Seong-joon isn’t her only weakness - she also finds great pleasure in excessive drinking (yet another recurring motif in Hong’s pictures), a habit which only worsens the state of her emotional confusion.

Strange as it may sound, in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon the act of walking plays almost as important a role as the characters do. Most scenes either begin or end with them wandering around without a specific destination, but it’s not the purpose of those seemingly ordinary journeys that counts. Every passage conveys a meaningful amount of emotions that not only help to examine thoroughly the intricacy of relations between the main characters but also increase the credibility of events depicted in the picture. The fact that Haewon revisits the same places during her everyday strolls inevitably reflects her continuous affection for Seong-joon and her inability to move on. 

Undeniably, when it comes to films that expose the truth about human relationships, Hong Sangsoo once again hits a home run and I really can’t wait to see what he’s going to come up with next.


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