Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 16, 2014 4:41 pm 
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More play with narrative and personal themes in a little charmer from Hong

A cinematic bagatelle just over an hour long, Hont Sang-soo's Hill of Freedom may be among the most amusing and accessible of the Korean auteur's many treatments of his familiar themes. The action focuses on Mori (assured Japanese star Ryô Kase), who has returned to Seoul to look for Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), a Korean woman he's in love with. His conversations with everybody are perforce in English since he speaks no Korean. The foreign language makes their conversations come out as disarmingly frank, sometimes a bit gauche, and often quite funny.

Mori taught at a language institute during a stint in the country a couple of years ago, and his life was miserable but he's back now because he realizes Kwon, whom he met at the institute, is who he wants to spend his life with. He stays at a guest house located very near where he knows Kwon to have lived, and leaves notes for her, hoping to connect. Along the way there is time to protect a girl from a rude, abusive man, for a drunken friendship established with the broken nephew Sang-won (Kim Ui-seong) of the guest house owner Gu-ok (Yun Yeo-jeong), as well as an unexpected romance with cafe owner Yeong-seon (Mun So-ri), also fueled by alcohol, that proves too tempting to cut off immediately.

But before we get to all this, it's necessary to explain the framework. Kwon turns out to have been out of town, and when she returns she's given a packet of letters (all from Mori) sent while she was away. Recovering from an illness, she stumbles on a stairway, dropping the letters, and when she picks them up they're out of order. She reads the shuffled letters while sitting at a cafe, and as she reads them one by one, we see the adventures of Mori recounted, out of order, in each. We have to guess what the correct order is. Clues include his checking into the guest house; meeting Yeong-seon, the owner of a cafe called "Jayuui Eondeok" (Hill of Freedom), to which he returns; restoring her lost dog and becoming her lover; various conversations about why he's in Korea, "politeness" and "cleanliness" as dominant traits of the Japanese; and characteristics of Korean women ("Big and strong").

A running theme is "time," which Mori is reading a little book about. It's an illusion, the book argues, though one that humans abandon at their peril. Does the order of the events matter? Anyway, they end happily. Perhaps as in other recent Hong films the confused time-frame is not only to play with themes of time and memory, but simply to keep viewers on their toes. The disarming, and sometimes quite funny, directness of the English dialogue remains this by some accounts "slight" and "fluffy" Hong effort's most enduring charm. He has rarely put together anything so cute and sweet; but in its minimalist way, it's as profound as anything he's done.

Derek Elley has a point when he says in his review on Film Business Asia that Hill of Freedom has "a marginally fresher feel than his past three titles — In In Another Country 다른 나라에서 (2012), Nobody's Daughter Haewon 누구의 딸도 아닌 해원 and Our Sunhi 우리 선희 — without actually reinventing himself in any way." One can grant that the pared-down format and English dialogue spoken by Asians have led to unusual freshness and vividness here, without sharing Elley's opinion that Hong was growing stale in those three previous films.

Hill of Freedom/자유의 언덕/Jayuui Eondeok, 66 mins., Hong Sang-soo's sixteenth feature, debuted at Toronto 9 September 2014. Ir was screened for this review as part of the Main Slate of the 52nd New York Film Festival. This is the eighth Hong Sang-soo film to be a NYFF Main Slate selection. The other seven were Turning Gate (NYFF 2002), Woman is the Future of Man (NYFF 2004), Tale of Cinema (NYFF 2005), Woman on the Beach (NYFF 2006), Night and Day (NYFF 2008), Oki's Movie (NYFF 2010), and Nobody's Daughter Haewon. Hong's Like You Know It All and Our Sunhi were in the Film Society of Lincoln Center's 2010 and 2014 Film Comment Selects, respectively. I've reviewed all these from 2005 on. Hong's work is consistently enjoyable and enjoyably consistent: he may be the ideal Asian auteur to study and compare the tightly interrelated works of. He has become even more prolific recently, his films have become more witty and subtly self-referential and narratively playful, and they have also happily begun to get US releases.

(For my full coverage of the 2014 NYFF see also FILMLEAF.)

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