Director: Hong Sang-soo
Stars: Kim Min-hee, Song Seon-mi, Seo Young-hwa
South Korean director Hong Sang-soo often feels to me like a modern day Éric Rohmer. His films are similarly small in scale, focusing on miniature comedies and dramas within small social microclimates. He’s also similarly prolific, churning out multiple efforts a year sometimes. His are small delights; appetisers that turn out to be surprisingly filling. Lately, his collaborations with his partner Kim Min-hee (most recognisable to Western audiences from Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden) have yielded some particularly charming results. His latest, The Woman Who Ran, continues this trend.
Min-hee plays Gam-hee, a married, middle-class woman who reconnects with some old friends while her husband is away for a few days on business. In the first of three encounters, the women grill some meat Gam-hee brings with her, have a few drinks (a Sang-soo staple), and converse in a manner that reveals nuanced dynamics between them. In an early scene, Gam-hee talks of how much time she and her husband spend together, prompting Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa) to muse on her own preference for solitude, and how extended time in other people’s company can be ‘dreadful’. The innocuous exchange – intended to show us the inner life of the characters and their contrasts – can’t help but feel imbued with another level of meaning in a year when our liberties to meet and socialise have been so frequently constricted.
Indeed, a growing fear of others is lightly developed throughout the film. Young-soon has CCTV installed so that she can track the encroachment of her neighbours, while a tall male newcomer to the area provides a point of pressure when he intrudes on the women’s time to ask them not to feed stray cats. His height and position in the frame in relation to the women visually keys us in to how domineering this moment feels, even as he is blithely, comically ignored.
Sang-soo’s cinema has frequently commented on the dynamics between men and women, often citing a cultural dissonance in this regard (Woman is the Future of Man, the essential Right Now, Wrong Then). In The Woman Who Ran, men are notably exempt from the drama, kept to the peripheries or absent entirely (as in the case of Gam-hee’s husband), except for a few unwelcome intrusions. What Sang-soo dramatises here is a kind of relaxed exhale from his female characters. A subtle but effective expression of the importance of female-only spaces and, also, female solitude.
In the second act of the film – and a move strongly reminiscent of Right Now, Wrong Then – Sang-soo effectively resets as Gam-hee pays a visit to another friend, Su-young (Song Seon-mi), examining the micro-changes in their interaction. Similar conversations occur; a meal is ruined but salvaged; another man at the door causes a minor upheaval. Again, CCTV plays a small but important role in the drama. Here the thrust is on the disparity between what someone says and their reality. Su-young talks of a non-starter romance she’s having with a married man in the building, but she’s harassed by a love-lorn young stalker, instead.
Closing out this anthology-like piece, Sang-soo foregrounds another kind of social exchange; one born of happenstance. Gam-hee meets an old friend working in a cinema cafe, quite by chance. The body language and the flow of the conversation is different when contrasted with what came before; stilted, defensive, awkward and apologetic, even as small moments suggest an intriguing history between Gam-hee and Woo-jin (Saebyuk Kim). Another kind of isolation is inferred here; that of travelling in small circles – even within a thriving metropolis – and as a result losing contact with those relatively close to you, geographically. Again, food is present (slices of apple), men are discussed and, again, a man causes irritation. This time, a former flame of Gam-hee’s, happened upon by accident.
At 77 minutes it’s another delicately portioned slice of Sang-soo replete with his usual tics (those sudden zooms). If it tilts to formula, that’s cushioned by how well said formula continues to work for him. Still, there is flex. His tools may remain the same, but his inquisitiveness into the ordinary and everyday remains spiky and he continues to find new ways to tweak this ongoing fascination (three variants this time, instead of Right Now, Wrong Then‘s two). As for the identity of the woman who ran? That’s tantalisingly left for the viewer to consider.
The Woman Who Ran is available on MUBI for 30 days from 20th December 2020.