In In Front of your Face (2021) Hong Sang-Soo continues to strip down; the formal trickery that defined much of his work before hasn’t gone so much as it’s been integrated. In Tale of Cinema (2005) the first thirty minutes turn out to be a film that the ‘real characters’ are watching, but here there is just a simple reveal, a secret we learn about the main character, Sang (Lee Hye-Young), that comes to re-contextualise all that we’ve seen.
Hong teases at some of those formal tropes, the film starts with Sang, a former actress returning from America, writing, suggesting the film as her writing as we’ve seen in In Another Country (2012) and Hill of Freedom (2014). Then we see her watch the sister she’s staying with, Jeong (Jo Yoon-Hee) sleep, suggesting the film as her dream, as with parts of On The Beach Alone at Night (2016) and others I won’t spoil. From there though, the film is notably straightforward, allowing an emotional directness that few other Hong films have had.
The drama is still generated in much the same way: by placing us in the middle of character’s lives, a little unmoored, and letting us gather the pieces ourselves, infer them. It’s both an engaged and somewhat detached, intellectual process; you don’t realise the film is so deathly sad until about half-way through when Sang returns to her childhood home which is in the process of being totally renovated. All she recognises is the garden that “long ago […] seemed very big”. As she wanders through the barren rooms, an affectless attempt at rustic, she hears voices from elsewhere. Are they from the past, is she hearing her young self, are her memories pouring out? Or is it something much simpler and much sadder: just the sound of the family that live there now, her past long lost, stripped out.
We hear Sang pray, asking “let me stay in the present”, because it’s a struggle to do so, the past may not burst dramatically into your life, but it lingers everywhere; her and her sister keep pointing out that they hardly know a thing about one another, as if it’s already too late. Sang finds the solace she’s praying for most when a director she meets with—he wants to make a film with her—talks about how beautiful she was in the films she made back in the 90’s, how he felt her purity. To this, she cries, moved more than anything in the present could make her; when she asks if he still wants to sleep with her and he says yes, all she can respond with is a detached “thank you”.
Hong aligns himself with this director, Jae (Kwon Hae-Hyo), he operates his own camera and wants to make their film Kangwon (Hong’s second feature is titled The Power of Kangwon Province). He is, as with the films he makes—often by their formalist and matter of fact, uninflected nature—engaged but distant. When Sang talks about the grace and presence she feels, Jae can only say “I’ve never felt that myself, but I am curious”.
When that reveal does comes, we feel its weight through him rather than her, who it truly effects. The preceding scenes are given a personal weight by their lack of specificity, the lack of this specific thing, so when we find it out, some of that is taken away from us; the audience at another remove further than the director. Hong is deeply aware and critical of that distance, because although the director does feel for Sang, it’s her who ends up comforting him, and, ultimately, he cancels their plans to make a film. Filmmaking and film watching are way to engage with emotions, with life, without having to get too close; even serious, artistic films are a form of running away, of hiding.
The colours in the film are often garish and over-lit by the sun, the present that Sang is looking for grace in is hard to look at, but despite his fears, Hong finds great beauty in it, in the simple unfussy things, like the overwhelmingly moving scene where Sang plays guitar for Jae, it’s unpolished, maybe even just bad, but it’s so beautiful. As Jeong says to her sister earlier in the film “as I get older, I like [flowers] more”. Later, Sang sees her sleeping again, she watches, and even though when Sang cancelled on her all she could do was laugh, as if she’d cracked, as if she couldn’t take anymore, she holds the hand of her dreaming sister. Despite asking, Jeong never told her what she’d dreamt about the night before, it’s back luck before midday, but still, despite it all, despite a distance she’ll never be able to cross, even if she can convince herself to try, Sang reaches.
Originally post on Substack on Feburary 2nd 2022