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The Front Row
“The Woman Who Ran,” Reviewed: A Provocative, Profound Drama of Marriage, Friendship, and Solitude
Hong Sang-soo’s film relies on disturbing ironies to approach the mightiest of subjects: the nature of happiness.
By Richard Brody
July 8, 2021
Kim Min-hee, as Gam-hee, and Song Seon-mi, as Su-young, discuss men’s inadequacies, and the peculiar standard by which Gam-hee seems to have achieved a decent relationship.​Photograph courtesy Cinema Guild
The South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, whose extraordinary new drama “The Woman Who Ran” is streaming on Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema, has made eighteen features since 2009 and twenty-six over all. He is the most prolific great director since Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died in 1982. (Hong has made two more features since the première of “The Woman Who Ran” at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival.) Unlike Fassbinder, who had West German institutional support, Hong became prolific when his institutional support dwindled. He devised a system of independent production, cobbling together budgets of about a hundred thousand dollars per film and crafting an aesthetic that reflects both the modesty of his means and the audacity of his ideas. He films, on a local, domestic, and personal scale, the stuff of daily life with a blend of patient intensity and jolting rearrangements and fragmentations, in order to encapsulate grand emotions and big ideas in intriguingly speculative forms. He does so again in “The Woman Who Ran,” which relies on his familiarly spare means for a story of exceptional poignancy and profundity. Even great and prolific directors have high points, and this film is one of Hong’s best; its form relies on disturbing ironies to approach one of the mightiest of subjects—the nature of happiness and, in particular, a happy marriage, from the perspective of a married woman.
Even the title is ironic. The woman in question, Gam-hee (played by Kim Min-hee, Hong’s partner), who seems to be thirtysomething, is running against time. She’s taking advantage of her husband’s absence from their Seoul home—he’s on a brief business trip—to pay successive overnight visits to two friends whom she hasn’t seen in a long while. In the course of these visits, she explains why: her husband (unnamed, unseen) prefers for them to be together all the time, and his trip marks the first time in five years of marriage that they have been apart for even a day. For her first visit, Gam-hee goes to the apartment of Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa), bearing a package of meat that will be grilled for dinner. Young-soon, who is divorced, lives in a paradoxical place—a gleaming, high-tech multistory building on an isolated site outside the city, nearly in the countryside, on a plot of open land that features a garden and a chicken coop. (The movie begins with a closeup of the coop, followed by a loud rooster crow.) There, the two women, along with Young-soon’s roommate, Young-ji (Lee Eun-mi), engage primarily in the activity that forms the core of Hong’s movies—extended, virtually Socratic dialogues on ordinary subjects, such as food, money, real estate, art, the neighborhood, and men. These conversations give rise to idiosyncratic observations and bold speculations; they both deliver the backstories of experience on which the drama is based and launch the ideas that the characters, and Hong himself, derive from it—principally, men’s woeful inadequacy for any decent relationship and the peculiar standard by which Gam-hee seems nonetheless to have achieved one.
The meat dinner leads Young-soon, a vegetarian, to speculate on the conscious distinction between mind and body that she takes pleasure in recognizing and which she doubts cows can make. The chicken coop prompts Young-ji to describe a domineering rooster who pecks the feathers off the backs of hens—not as part of mating, she says, but just “to prove he’s the strongest.” The next scene slyly links the male bird’s arrogant cruelty to that of male humans, when a man rings the doorbell and confronts Young-ji about the feral cats that she feeds. In the course of their barely verbal jousting, he says that his wife is afraid of the cats and threatens to lodge a complaint against her. The rooster’s cock-a-doodle-doos, which preface and eventually conclude Gam-hee’s visit, suddenly come off as altogether menacing, an ambient sign of the male vanity and aggression that Young-soon and Young-ji face.
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This sense of menace comes to the fore again in Gam-hee’s next visit, to a friend named Su-young (Song Seon-mi), who lives in a stylish apartment amid the quasi-bohemian urban bustle of Seoul. Su-young is a producer of dance performances, but she works at it in only a desultory way (though she got a good deal on her apartment as an ostensible artist). She mainly teaches Pilates, and frequents a neighborhood bar where lots of artists are regulars. She finds her solitude hard to bear (“You’re lucky—there are so few decent guys, and Koreans, ugh”) and her night life wearying. She had a one-night stand with a young poet who, now, rings her doorbell and berates her for subsequently ignoring him—and she fears that, in his rage, he’ll talk about the affair to another male neighbor, a married but separated architect whom she’s tenuously dating.
Hong’s distinctive methods locate and condense the passions and agonies that boil volcanically beneath the smooth surfaces of daily middle-class life. He films the women’s discussions in very long takes replete with panning shots and zooms in and out that parse the dialogue analytically. It’s as if these briskly determined visual interventions turn the talk into a libretto and set it to quiet but emphatic visual music, transforming physical immobility into intellectual action and emotional revelation. Hong pays close attention to the cinematic and personal implications of architecture and urbanism, and he crafts scenes that carry domestic details to their logical yet eccentric, expressive yet symbolic extremes, as in a matched set of disturbing scenes that Gam-hee witnesses by way of her hosts’ closed-circuit security cameras. His rueful fascination with the interpenetration of public spaces and private lives carries over into his artfully self-aware approach to the decisively framing forms of cinematic narrative.
In other films, such as “Hill of Freedom” and “On the Beach at Night Alone,” Hong challenges ordinary perceptions and interpretations by freely shuffling time and interweaving fantasy and reality. In “The Woman Who Ran,” his audacities are subtler but no less powerful, rendering the film’s provocative ideas all the more clearly: by merely removing some expected narrative signposts and adding some uncanny coincidences, he defamiliarizes familiar situations and settings. The resulting air of abstraction evokes the powerful underlying social forces that play havoc with his characters’ emotional lives—and which Gam-hee, coming through to the other side of despair, cannily and movingly resists. There’s a kind of speculative formalism even to her own action, to the basic action of the title: in her few days apart from her husband, Gam-hee is running away from her own solitude and running toward her solitary friends, as if to see her own life reflected back to her through the lenses of their frustrations. Without a word about current events or social activism, her private stance responds to social fractures and gender wars in South Korea, and is, in its very essence, political. Hong is the most French of non-French directors, and Gam-hee’s sense of her marriage reflects the bitterly ironic last line of one of the greatest French films, Max Ophüls’s “Le Plaisir,” an adaptation of stories by the master ironist Guy de Maupassant: “Happiness isn’t cheerful.”
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Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog, The Front Row. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”
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