“I don’t want to see anyone. When I do, I say things I don’t need to say, and I do things I don’t need to do.”
Robber cats and one-night stands. Former nemesis and security surveillance cameras. Via deceptively simple staging parallels, his usual multi-point camerawork, and a knack for digging deeper motifs out of basic improvisational banter, Hong Sang-soo‘s “The Woman Who Ran,” might feel a little “tame” on the surface compared to the emotional density of some of his latest (“On The Beach Alone At Night,” “Right Now, Wrong Then ” ), but is an admirably humble honing of what the filmmaker does best, a diverting respite from his confrontational aggrievances.
Shifting his focus from following the aloof complaints of bumbling creatives who’ve experienced various degrees of success in the fields of both art and romance, his newest almost erases men completely from the fabric of its narrative. The few times these poets/lovers do show up, they’re treated as if almost a cultural embarrassment, too ashamed of their tunnel-vision beliefs to even be allowed to look at the camera. As critic Beatrice Loayza words it in her perceptive Playlist review: “These unwanted masculine punctuations, all shot with the actors’ backs turned to the camera, seem to drive home the point that men’s opinions and feelings are not important here. In fact, they’re rather silly.”
I’d been working on my own passage attempting to illuminate this concept and realized I simply couldn’t do better than her expert analysis had already articulated. Hong’s self-awareness surrounding the preposterous desires of those living in their own ring of prosperity has come full circle to the point where we are almost supposed to dismiss these men the moment they present themselves—maintaining their primary concerns take humanitarian precedence over the living situations of the women they pursue. “Hotel By The River” saw Gi Ju-bong, an acclaimed, elderly poet, repeatedly thanking a pair of beautiful women for existing, just for being beautiful. This man has ignored his relationship with his two sons in favor of pursuing such fruitless passions, by the end of the film he pays the ultimate price.
Alcoholism and womanizing don’t fuel the drama this time around, “The Woman Who Ran,” following a handful of women whose lives have veered off into various directions playing catch-up. Claiming to be without the company of her husband for the first time in a half-decade, Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) visits divorced chicken farmer, Young-soon (Seo Young-haw), who is awkwardly chastised by her new neighbors for “feeding the robber cats.” Young-soon calmly tries to explain that they consider the stray cats family, certainly not seeing them as “robbers,” but the man maintains his stance: “Please do not feed the robber cats.”
“It’s absurd, not being able to go outside. My wife is very sensitive,” the husband insists (we never see his wife). A classic exercise highlighting Hong’s mastery of comedic escalation, one assumes allergy issues may lay at the center of misunderstanding. Not so. Perhaps incidentally, or perhaps quite on purpose, the insistence by the male figures that their needs are being entirely dismissed when other, external social factors, involving the well-being of others are involved, is a powerful reflection on stay-at-home selfishness, revealing how assumed privilege inconsiderately ignores the rudimentary plights of others.
Framing the majority of these visits via dinner table profile shots echoing each other, Gam-hee next visits an old friend, Su-Young (Song Seon-mi), living in a hip apartment by herself, their conversation interrupted by a suitor at the door. Contrasted against the demands of the ludicrous robber cat husband (credited as Cat Man), we learn that Su-Young slept with a desperate artist who has since become smitten with her (credited as Young Poet). Cutting to a video monitor on the inside of the apartment, the only time we see this sad man from a frontal angle he is fuzzy and silent. Finally, Hong ends his film in his favorite setting, the movie theater, where an old rival—Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), now married to an ex of Gam-hee—now works. In contrast to “Hotel by the River’s” aforementioned farce of gratuity, the happenstance lobby encounter between two former enemies largely constitutes of apology after apology.
Age and distance revealing that connection and compatibility are not an easy thing to come by, as what constitutes a life worth living is a very different thing for a privileged drunken poet in a bar and a woman working a dead-end job at the popcorn counter living in the shadow of her husband. Lingering anxiety over actions taken versus choices made looms large over soulful contemplation between female friends, while the boys start each interaction determined to put their foot down but afraid to actually do so.
Although some argue being informed about Hong’s infamous real-life relationship with star Kim Min-hee is directly proportional to an appreciation of his modern work; that reading feels a bit limiting to me. Knowing the details behind who has slept with whom and the particular dramaturgy of personal betrayal might form the backbone of most all his narratives, but stripping away those specifics and simply looking at how Hong’s synergy as a filmmaker has evolved on an abstract level (see also: “Grass“) reveals how layered his seemingly straightforward films truly are. Stripping away the names and faces of his usual narcissistic fascinations, “The Woman Who Ran,” is a thoughtful exercise on the vexing nature of the interrelation between aspiration, accommodation, consideration and consciousness.
“The Woman Who Ran” opens in select theaters July 9