An auteurist Korean Woody Allen?
The blurb term “deceptively simple” indeed applies to this Hong Sang-soo iteration, in that very little seems to be going on — but the end apparently is a dream, and that fooled me. And it also fooled my friend, who was delighted with the film, though unable (perhaps blissfully?) to remember any of the various other Hong films we’ve both seen before at Lincoln Center, which has presented six or seven of the Korean auteur’s works at iterations of the New York Film Festival. I have enjoyed most of the others more, and therefore must side — cautiously — with those who consider this one a “tired retread” (Derek Elley), even though there are moments — for some of us, anyway, such as my friend. I also agree with Mike D’Angelo in wondering if “the professor/director’s (yes, again) obsession with that hideous techno rendition of Beethoven’s 7th [is] meant to be funny, or weirdly poignant.” What’s clear is that it’s hideous (he plays it on a cell phone). And why do some aspects of Hong’s films, the camerawork, and the external shots, for instance, so often seem colourless and merely routine? The main characters are usually played by attractive people, with interesting or pretty faces and nice voices. The “professor/director” speaks in deep resonant tones.
This one has a twist: it has a girl at the centre of it, and a very pretty one, who’s “abandoned” by her mother, who goes to Canada to be with her brother. There’s also a chance meeting with Jane Birkin, which brings out that the girl, Haewon (Jeong Eun-chae) speaks good English, and also wants to become a successful movie actress. Birkin says Haewon resembles her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg (she does; she’s meant to) — which delights Haewon. After a farewell (tea) drinking session with her mother, Haewon walks past the Jongho public library and sees the Famous Hotel, which has memories of her brief affair with Lee Seong-jun (Lee Seon-gyun), the director and also her current teacher. She calls him because she’s lonely and they meet up and drink, joining other students and pretending that they met by chance. The theme of hiding, but not hiding, an affair is repeated with them and another couple.
A week later Haewon and Lee Seong-jun go to Namhan Fortress, in the hills south of Seoul, where they have a big argument over their affair. Lee is furious that Haewon has slept with a younger guy she’s dating, and calls her a bitch. The re-connection leads Lee Seong-jun to messing up his life. He gets drunk and fights with his wife and moves out. He keeps playing the hideous techno version of Beethoven’s 7th and breaking into tears, reminded of Haewon and how he pines for her.
Another week passes and Haewon falls asleep in the college library and dreams of a boy asking if she’s dating another boy. (This is seen/shot as if it were happening.) Still later Haewon is back in Seoul and runs into Jeong-won (Kim Ui-seong), and they go to a bar and chat. He is a professor in San Diego just divorced who says he is looking for a new wife just like her. This pleases and flatters her. But does she want him, or Lee Seong-jun, or one of the boys her own age, or just flattery and success?
Hong’s way of working is double-edged. On the one hand his constant reworking of themes and situations in every successive film makes for a kind of inbred pleasure, and tricky repetitions and over-lappings of real and imaginary as in the recent Night and Day can be fun. On the other hand one begins to think back nostalgically to the first few Hong films one saw, when it all seemed fresh and new and original, sort of Nouvelle Vague in Korean, and they had not all begun to blur together. The question arises: is the burnout his, mine, or both? Of course Hong is far from being an auteurist Korean Woody Allen; Woody changes milieus and themes more often. But both directors make a lot of distinctively personal movies of which some work and some don’t. Or all work, more or less. But afterwards some of them you don’t care about.
On the other hand, with a filmmaker whose work is all so closely interrelated and flat-out repetitions as Hong Sang-soo’s, the interrelations between the films are a big part of the interest and pleasure, and so it may be that in viewing his entire œuvre, or a large slice of it, in connection with Nobody’s Daughter Hawwon, this latest film may come to life.
Actually more than Woody Allen Hong Sang-soo obviously resembles Eric Rohmer. He, like Rohmer, focuses on people who always want to be with the wrong person, or like Melvil Poupaud in Rohmer’s 1996 Tale of Summer, just can’t decide among several. Haewon certainly has several, but she doesn’t even seem to want to decide; she’s just killing time, or trying to forget that she misses her mother.
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, the director’s 14th feature, debuted at Berlin (February) and has shown at four or five other festivals, and was screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival in September 2013.
Director: Sang-soo Hong
Writer: Sang-soo Hong (screenplay)
Stars: Jeong Eun-Chae, Seon-gyun Lee, Joon-sang Yoo
Runtime: 90 min
Country: South Korea