South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo, 60, is one of today’s most productive filmmakers. He’s made more than two dozen films over the past two decades, sometimes producing one or even two a year. The consistency and quality of his work has earned him significant audiences at film festivals and among arthouse audiences, who have come to love his ironic and melancholy films: slim, low-budget dramas that often focus on the conflict dynamic between men.
His stories are usually built around a few recurring elements: romantic entanglements, personal anxieties, ordinary conversations that gradually become uncomfortable and revealing – especially if there is alcohol. Because of this, Hong has often been wrongly accused of making the same movie over and over again, with only slight variations in story and structure. It’s not that Hong is repeating himself; it’s more that he’s fascinated with repetition as a fact of life, the way people often find both comfort and dissatisfaction in routine.
He explores this tendency to the sublime effect in The woman who ran, his latest film to hit theaters. If you’re unfamiliar with Hong’s work, this is a great place to start like any other. The title is a bit of a conundrum – there are several women in the story, and we never see any running. The main character is a sweet-mannered Seoul woman named Gamhee, who is played by formidable actress Kim Min-hee, Hong’s frequent collaborator and off-screen partner.
In the film, Gamhee makes three different visits to three different women she hasn’t seen in quite some time. In the first story, she goes to an old friend who was recently divorced and now lives with a roommate outside of Seoul. In the second, Gamhee bumps into another old friend who works as a Pilates instructor and has romantic problems: she has a crush on a neighbor and is harassed by another.
The third story takes place in a Seoul cafe, and it’s more tense than the other two, as Gamhee reunites with a woman she fell out with years ago. Hong doesn’t push this scene into a heated confrontation. Instead, he lets his characters work their way through an emotional minefield, clinging to a polish of politeness that only makes the situation more sticky.
Hong is an excellent observer. Rather than going back and forth between his actors, he lets their conversation unfold in one take, with little camera movement except the occasional zoom. He obtains remarkably naturalistic performances, with all the hesitations and evasions of normal speech. We have the impression of being there in the same room as these characters.
Each chapter of The woman who ran is funny, touching, and absorbing in itself, but the movie is even more intriguing to think about afterwards as you wonder how these chapters fit together. In each story, Gamhee and her friend share a meal – and one of the rare pleasures of Hong’s films is that they show us people taking the time to eat and relish their food. Also in each story, an uninvited man shows up halfway through and triggers a slightly unpleasant interaction. At one point, the divorced friend and her roommate have a frighteningly polite argument with their male neighbor who wants them to stop feeding the stray cats that sometimes enter their backyard. It’s my favorite scene in the movie, a little masterpiece of passive-aggressive debate, capped off by the best feline reaction plan I’ve seen in ages.
Hong generally divides his attention equally between women and men, and he has often been a scathing and self-implicated critic of Korean men’s misconduct. Here the focus is on women. Gamhee of course gets the most screen time, but she’s also hesitant to reveal a lot about herself. We know she has a husband whom she claims to be inseparable from – a statement that rings a little more hollow every time she repeats it. If they are so inseparable, why do we never meet him?
Maybe Gamhee is the woman on the run after all, fleeing a life of emptiness that she can’t bring herself to recognize and checking women from her past to see if they are any better. Kim’s beautiful performance hints at that possibility without outright engaging in it, and it’s that ambiguity that gives this deceptively seemingly film its lingering resonance. As Hong Sang-soo reminds us, few things are as inherently dramatic or mysterious as everyday life.