Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 02, 2014 7:00 am 
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More good Hong Sang-soo

As Scott Foundas notes in his enthusiastic Variety review at Locarno, the prolific and ultra-consistent Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo has always focused on and celebrated (attractive, young) women, but Our Sunhi and his previous film Nobody’s Daughter Haewon signal a subtle shift to more of an actual femme POV; and Our Sunhi is one of Hong's most enjoyable efforts in a while, if less emotional than Haewon. As usual, there's a movie director, there's talk of film school, and there are endless complicated and sometimes comical flirtations to be observed, with people getting drunk and overstating things.

It all begins when Sunhi returns to film school to get a letter of recommendation from Professor Choi so she can get into graduate school in America. She runs into ex-boyfriend Munsu, and they drink. Munsu's declaration of undying love (an excellent and hilarious Lee Sun-kyun here) she rejects, leading Munsu to seek out Jaehak, another faculty member, and film director, and get drunk with him (more hilarity from Lee Sun-kyun). Munsu's absurd ramble about how one must dig deep and go all the way (did he get it from Sunhi, echoing a platitude from Professor Choi?) is rejected by Jaehak, who says digging deep will only reveal one's shortcomings.

Professor Choi gives Sunhi the recommendation letter he has dashed off, which he has made "honest," in other words ambiguous and niggling, with some good comments but also some unfavorable ones. She is smart, it says, but he's not sure if she has talent or not. She was shy in class. It was evident the professor didn't want Sunhi to go abroad. This leads Sunhi to invite the professor to lunch so she can get him to write a more positive letter. He admits she was his favorite student, and not only that, that he has always been in love with her. When she gives him the nod, he is ecstatic. He drinks with Jaehak, admitting he's excited about a young woman.

But now it's Jaehak's turn to run into Sunhi, and they go drinking in the same bar, with fried chicken again ordered in by the proprietress. (Thrice now the same old nostalgic love song is played, to ironic effect.) Sunhi gets quite drunk this time, and caresses Jaehak, saying sometimes he is "lovely." As they stumble to Jaehak's building (he has left his wife), it seems they will sleep together, but they don't.

By now it's clear that all three men are in love with Sunhi, and all are fools. Sunhi is a bit of a fool herself. A recurrent issue is: if you want to make films, why waste your time in film school, either as a student or a teacher? And why all this talk, when you should be doing things? That's the biggest irony, since Hong's movies are all talk.

As has been his wont of late, Hong creates a succession of similar scenes, with drunken sessions at a bar or restaurant table predominating, and he likes making lines and themes of successive dialogues overlap or recur -- though the parallelism isn't quite as dreamlike and confusing as in the 2011 The Day He Arrives, and the theme of going abroad isn't as poignant as in the 2013 Nobody's Daughter Haewon .

Sunhi sure gets drunk a lot, but she keeps these three men at arm's length. The situation resembles one in Eric Rohmer, as in A Summer's Tale (1996), where Melvil Poupaud must choose between three young women and -- the classic pattern, found in Jane Austen -- insists on picking the least appropriate. But especially here, Hong is more minimalist and cool than Rohmer. Sunhi is't picking anybody. She's more interested in the recommendation letter than in the three men. Hong is also more of a formalist than Rohmer. He is fascinated with parallels and repetitions of patterns. But this doesn't keep there from being some terrific acting in this movie. As Sunhi, Jung Yu-mi, in her fifth outing with the director, is a combination of sexy, innocent, flirtatious, and mysterious. But the prize must go to Lee Sun-kyun as Munsu: his drunken act with a condescending Jeong Jae-yeong is real, unexpected, hilarious, a triumph. Though the POV may be Sunhi's, in a way, some of the best interactions are between the men.

Playing with patterns isn't just formalism. It's what playwrights do when they construct a well-made farce. It's certainly a new pattern when all three men meet at last at the palace park, but it's also a comic climax.

Our Sunhi, 88 mins., debuted at Locarno, where it won Best Director and was nominated for the Golden Leopard. Other important international festivals including Toronto, London, and Vancouver. Screened for this review as part of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, where it was shown 17 and 20 February 2014.

"A TWO-SHOT BECOMES A THREE-SHOT": JAEHAK (Jeong Jae-yeong), PROFESSOR CHOI (Kim Sang-joong AND MUNSU (Lee Sun-kyun)

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