Though Hong Sang-soo has for some time ranked among the world’s foremost working filmmakers, his work remains uniquely resistant to criticism. How can one hope to articulate the depth of these films, their emotional and intellectual richness, when on paper they read as so thinly conceived and schematic? Their charms are ample and readily apparent, certainly, but their greatness seems somehow more elusive—it is as though share an inscrutable quality which elevates each toward the sublime. It is of course the job of criticism to discern and convey this quality in writing, to wrestle with the greatness of the work until it is pinned down. And yet in this case it seems ill-equipped to do so. Perhaps the great Hong exegesis will one day arrive and with it his body of work will be thoughtfully elucidated and properly extolled. Until then it seems all I can do is describe the local phenomena.
What I can tell you with more certainty is that “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon”, Hong’s fourteenth feature film and the first of two released to date this year, enjoys many of the pleasures found reliably in his other work, plus a few to call its own. Chief among the holdovers is Hong’s perceptive, sensitive depiction of interpersonal relationships, which here include both mother-daughter and student-teacher pairings in addition to the usual bittersweet romance. The film centers on the eponymous Haewon (Jung Eun-chae), a film student and amateur actress living in Seoul whose mother, Jin-joo (Kim Ja-ok), is preparing to emigrate to Canada. The story simply deals with the emotional fallout that follows: stricken by loneliness, Haewon instinctively gravitates to a former lover, Seong-joon (Lee Sun-kyun), a film director and professor with whom she had a long-running affair a year earlier. Deeply pained and yearning for affection, Haewon thrusts herself back into the arms of a (still-)married man, effectively switching out one kind of hurt for another.
From here the film proceeds in more or less the customary Hong manner: conversations are lingered over in medium two-shots, philosophy is expounded upon loftily, egos are routinely deflated, and social tension mounts as groups convene over Korean barbeque and too many bottles of soju. These are the constants of Hong’s cinema. Each of his films adopts this basic framework of intimacy and imbibing, and each film in turn furnishes it with minor variations. And in this case they are very significant indeed. Hong’s last three features—“In Another Country”, “The Day He Arrives”, and “Oki’s Movie”—conformed to an overarching structural conceit which contorted their narratives into pretzel-like loops of repetition and regression, taking the often bifurcated stories of his earlier films a step further into conspicuous schematization. Though they did not all qualify as puzzle films—there was a never a sense that they needed to be ‘solved’ in any meaningful way—the degree of difficulty entailed by their architecture and design was almost guaranteed to be a barrier. “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon”, by contrast, heads directly for the pleasure centers.
The simple joys of Hong’s methods ultimately survived being wound into even the tightest curlicues of time and space, but it’s still refreshing to find him taking a more straightforward approach here (as he does again in “Our Sunhi”, his second feature of 2013). “Haewon” only indulges in one structural device, and it’s a much more legible one, even perhaps classical in its elegance and simplicity: on several occasions we come upon Haewon asleep at the table of a restaurant or library, and what follows are the often surreal reveries of her daydreams, formally unembellished and unadorned. In the first, and most frivolous, she gives directions to French actress and singer Jane Birkin (playing herself), mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg, who compliments Haewon by telling her that she looks just like her daughter. Subsequent dreams betray a similar deference to waking-life surrogates, which Hong uses to work through many of the film’s thematic preoccupations in a manner that excuses (and undoes) the neatness of his resolutions. It’s a simple gimmick, but Hong derives much from it: the impact of the naturalistic drama is heightened by these brief forays into the realm of fantasy, which subtly shift the focus from emotional catharsis to the process of attaining it. As always with Hong, the central dynamic is in how people relate. But here there is a twist: Haewon relates with many others but most important is how she relates to herself.
SCORE: 8.8 / 10