In an early scene of Hong Sang-Soo’s “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon,” a young woman at a point of transition in her life almost literally bumps into singer, actress and generally awesome icon Jane Birkin on the street somewhere in Seoul. Birkin asks her for directions; the young woman, flummoxed at first by all of that Birkin star power, eventually figures out a way to help, and then blurts out: “I really, really adore your daughter!”
The exchange is hilarious and lovely – then it’s over. And it’s an example of the way Hong, in his fifth movie in three years, connects moments and bits of conversation into an evanescent patchwork, one whose ideas don’t so much leap out so much as they emanate gradually. Those ideas may not have much intellectual depth, but they’re emotionally resonant - “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” is a meditation on loneliness and longing in the wake of a stop-and-go love affair, an examination of the residue that’s left when two people who care for each other realize that there’s no hope for any future.
In this case, those two people are the titular Haewon (played, with vibrancy and more than a touch of melancholy, by Jung Eunchae), a young acting student, and film director Lee (Lee Sunkyun), the married man with whom she’s been having an affair – he also happens to have been one of her professors.
Haewon and Lee have broken up, but in a burst of loneliness one day - instigated by the fact that her mother is moving, perhaps permanently, to Canada – she contacts him. The two meet awkwardly, and speak in the kind of language used by people who either know each other extremely well or barely know each other at all. Lee, struggling to find words to explain the finer qualities of Haewon’s character as compared with those of other women, tells her, “You use your head to live and all, but you pull fewer tricks.” She deflects that assessment with the words, “I’m the devil.”
With her soft, genial smile – her mother at one point urges her to try out for the Miss Korea pageant -- Haewon certainly doesn’t look like the devil. But she means, perhaps, that she feels things more deeply and violently than she lets on. She wants to forget Lee, who has a wife and child and who keeps waffling on the subject of leaving them. To that end, she entertains the idea of marrying a professor she meets serendipitously one day outside a bookstore – although he’s Korean, he’s based in the States, and he proposes to her impulsively if also a bit vaguely. But she and Lee can’t fully break away from one another, and a conversation between them late in the movie captures their circular path of frustration. “Why do you make this so hard for us?” one of them says to the other, with a lack of specificity that suggests diffuse but pervasive mutual pain.
“Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” has perhaps more structure and shaping than some recent Hong pictures like “The Day He Arrives.” It also stresses the woman’s point of view, a departure of sorts from Hong’s usual approach. The picture feels breezy as you’re watching it, but leaves a bit of an afterburn. As a character, Haewon is a little opaque: She has a tendency to fall asleep while reading at the library, and her depression over her romantic travails leads her to drink more than she should. But her sadness, even though its specific source can’t be pinpointed, hovers around her like an aura. It’s hard to characterize “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” as either slight or heavy. It’s somewhere in between, a wry little comedy that carries a sack of loneliness on its fragile shoulders.