Director: Hong Sang-soo
Stars: Yunhee Cho, Hae-hyo Kwon, Lee Hye-yeong
Hong Sang-soo has always operated in an intimate, small-scale register, so much so that the proposition of a ‘lockdown film’ from the prolific South Korean comes with it’s own set of questions. Chiefly… what difference will it make? Arriving on UK shores via New Wave Films in select cinemas (and streaming on Curzon), his latest offering is both a rare opportunity for Brits to experience his idiosyncratic cinema and a modest outlier in his filmography; a body of work that is frustratingly difficult to see on these shores (can one of those lovely boutique blu-ray labels gather up a career-spanning box please?).
Initially it seems like familiar territory. An expat named Sangok (Lee Hye-yeong) has returned to South Korea from her life in the US to visit her sister Jeongok (Yunhee Cho) after seemingly quite a long period of absence. Sangok is sleeping on the sofa in Jeongok’s modest apartment. One morning the two take the air, enjoying toast and coffee at a riverside eatery, where Jeongok encourages her sister to relocate home again, spinning out ideas for future plans. Sangok is moved to reveal details of her life in the US that prove mildly shocking, and a less than generous fiscal situation.
She has, it transpires, another motivation for returning home. Formerly – and briefly – an actor of some small renown, she has been invited to a meeting with a prominent film director named Jaewon (Hae-hyo Kwon), who has a project with her in mind. Effectively, then, In Front of Your Face splits into two extended meetings; one between sisters and one between professionals. However, the levels of intimacy run counter to expectations.
Sangok is reticent with her sister, keeping details at arms length and only revealing portions of her recent past and then only when questioned. They are friendly, but the distance is felt. Upon arrival at her (delayed) meeting with Jaewon, however, Sangok is confronted with an evident and amorous fan and the two drink together (a staple of Hong’s cinema). A time cut reveals a very different Sangok. Her barriers lowered by alcohol and flattery, she both flirts with Jaewon and opens up on personal news that she has shielded from her sister. An epilogue caps the film with a recognition of life’s inherent comedy and an underplayed but touching moment of closeness between the siblings.
Such slice-of-life microdrama might not differentiate In Front of Your Face from other charming diary entries in this director’s oeuvre, but the pandemic prickles around the edges here even as it remains unseen and unaddressed within the text. The sense of fractured distance and slightly laboured dialogue between the siblings echoes the stilted communication styles we all encountered to varying degrees; Jeongok’s demand for closeness is also emblematic of a similar sense of lack. And, elsewhere, the spectre of death hangs over the film like the dim light of a cloudy afternoon. The low-res of Hong’s digital camera sometimes blurs the definitions in the faces of his actors, making them indistinct smudges cast against dull backgrounds.
Formally, Hong is even less adventurous than usual. His trademark zooms are absent, and most of the film is captured in his usual long static shots with little reprieve. This does allow the actors to flex and breathe, however, and on that score Hong is as successful at capturing naturalistic responses as ever. Lee Hye-yeong especially impresses with what plays as a gradual thawing of character.
So slight is In Front of Your Face that, on finishing it, my initial decision was not to cover it on here at all. It is, however, a film that lingers and I’ve found myself ruminating it’s minimalist preoccupations in the time since. This is Hong in a nutshell. His work draws natural and apt comparisons to that of Eric Róhmer. Acute observations of human interactions that evidence their own minute poetry. For newcomers this offering may seem quite precious and unassuming, but its longevity after the credits have rolled may prove the perfect crowbar into the wider and richer cavities of Hong’s world.
Now if only we could access it with ease…