Country: South Korea
Language: English, some Korean
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Screenplay: Hong Sang-soo
Cinematography: Park Hongyeol
Sound: Kim Mir
Music: Jeong Yongjin
Cast: Kase Ryo, Moon So-ri, Youn Yuh-Jung, Kim Eui-Sung, Jung Eun-Chae, Seo Young-Hwa
Runtime: 66 min
Film’s official website: N/a
Seen at the 2014 London Film Festival. Note: If you have seen the film and can’t make sense of it, I have added some further thoughts (marked as spoilers) after the image gallery.
For the sixteenth feature-length film in someone’s career, Hong Sang-soo’s Jayuui Eondeok feels surprisingly raw: it comes with a fragmented, non-chronological narrative that clearly has a few pieces missing, a camera with a conspicuously amateurish zoom and naturalistic dialogue composed of lengthy and often quite awkward utterances that normally are polished away, if not in the scripting, then certainly in the editing stage of the film making process. These are all, I am told, the director’s typical tricks (I am a Hong Sang-soo novice).
The basic story in Jayuui Eondeok is simple. Mori (Kase Ryo), a Japanese man, returns to Seoul, seeking Kwon (Seo Young-Hwa), his former Korean girlfriend. While there, he encounters various, often rather colourful people, some at the guesthouse where he is staying and some at the titular Hill of Freedom, a small café in the neighbourhood. There is the assured elderly lady (Youn Yuh-Jung) that runs the guesthouse, her penniless nephew (Kim Eui-Sung) who gets served late breakfast and a tall, headstrong young girl (Jung Eun-Chae), who is rumoured to have a married lover. There’s also Young-sun (Moon So-ri), who works at the café, and comes with a tiny dog and an awful boyfriend that she can’t quite get rid of.
Because Kwon is nowhere to be found, Mori begins writing letters, leaving them at the language institute that they both once frequented. Fast-forward to a moment in the unspecified future. Kwon receives the bundle of papers, dropping them on the stairs on her way out. As she gathers them together – one sheet remaining left behind –, the narrative becomes jumbled for Kwon now reads the letter’s pages in random order: Mori tells Young-sun about the concept of time. The penniless nephew and the headstrong girl get into a screaming match. The boyfriend gets jealous. The elderly lady refuses to serve breakfast after 10 am. Young-sun chats up Mori in the café and treats him to cake. Mori sleeps until 5 in the afternoon. The men share a meal. The dog gets found and lost. There’s a strange dream. They stumble home drunk. Mori drowns his sadness in soju.
The details are puzzle pieces, all over the place and some – the sheet lost on the stairs – missing entirely. It’s a tactic that leaves you hanging and that is riveting at the same time. Have we really been told enough about some characters – Kwon and Young-sun in particular – to grasp their appeal? Or have we only missed out on some connection, one that fills in the gap to compel us about these people’s relationship with Mori? I have no certain answers and, ultimately, it seems to me that Hong Sang-soo is not trying to be clever – this is not Nueve Reinas, Inception, Memento (etc.) with their intricately entangled but perfectly planned out narratives where everything falls together by the end. Rather I feel that the director is leaving things undefined and open to interpretation on purpose. We must decide ourselves how to answer the questions – Is the dream really the scene that plays to the voiceover of the letter read aloud at that moment? What does the ending truly mean? What about the ring on Kwon’s finger throughout the entire film? – that keep swirling in our heads after the reel has long stopped rolling.
With Hong engaging in his (apparently) usual anthropological dissection of society, individuals scenes are thus not so much about composing a complete story but reflecting reality through true-to-life anecdotes. The director exposes his characters’ not so appealing sides (Mori regularly drinks himself into a stupor, the middle-aged nephew tries to pick up young girls) and drops in snippets on tired stereotypes (in a humorous scene, the guesthouse owner explains she likes the Japanese because they “are polite and clean”, Mori, impolite and frank, responds that this is no reason to like someone and that she must not know many people from Japan). Hong also refreshingly presents a Korea that is sometimes kept hidden on the screen – particularly on television – as perfectly polished people and places give way to more run-down backstreets, small, bare rooms and individuals with wrinkled clothing and no ounce of make-up.
Jayuui Eondeok possesses a stellar cast with Kase Ryo (a wonderfully nuanced actor from Japan who can metamorphose into any character), Moon So-ri (one of Korea’s top actresses) and various well-known and not-quite-so-well-known individuals in supporting roles, with veteran performer Young Yuh-jung deserving a particular mention. All actors are faced with the challenge that the film’s dialogue is almost entirely in a language not native to any of them: a few, short exchanges in Korean pop up here and there, a single phrase is uttered in Japanese (though not by Kase), as most conversations come in English. As a result, the performances don’t feel quite as smooth and naturalistic as we may have come to know from these actors, and yet there is again something rather real and genuine about them. When Moon So-ri stumbles over her words in a dinner scene, it’s not unrealistic that Young-sun does too – she is, after all, conversing in a language that she isn’t quite fluent in. As anyone that has ever had a friendship and/or relationship in another language and struggled over words when veering into even just slightly more philosophical or complex topics can attest, it soon becomes difficult to express yourself fully.
Hong Sang-soo’s approach to film-making is, without doubt, a little idiosyncratic. It seems to divide the critics, some finding his movies too much of the same, others championing them as masterpieces of “comic anthropology” (quote). With Jayuui Eondeok being my first Hong Sang-soo film I can find much to delight in, but can also easily imagine that one might tire of the constant recycling of the same tricks and techniques in similar stories. Like some other directors who regularly travel the international festival circuit, Hong may be well one of those whose oeuvre you need not watch in full, with a sampling of his films sufficing.
Hong Sang-soo falls back on his (apparently) usual tricks of a non-chronological narrative whose scenes viewers must assemble together without in fact having all the pieces. While some questions thus remain, the director’s honest dissection of society through a simple tale and ordinary characters is both compelling and delightful enough for myself to want to explore – as a Hong Sang-soo newbie – at least one or another of his films.
- Alternative reviews: Pierce Conran at Modern Korean Cinema; Next Projection; Guy Lodge at Variety; The Hollywood Reporter; Screen Daily.
- Film clips: “Letter”; “Looking for Somebody”; “Book”; “Breakfast”.
- Interviews: ALA Champ Magazine with Kase Ryo, Port Magazine with Kase Ryo, Japan Times with Kase Ryo. Yes, Ryo, Ryo, Ryo. 🙂
- Otherwhere Reviews of other films with the actors:
- Moon So-ri: 가족의 탄생 (Gajokeui tansaeng/FamilyTies)
- Youn Yuh-Jung (Yoon Yeo-jeong): 여배우들 (Yeobaeudeul/Actresses)
- Kase Ryo:「ライク・サムワン・イン・ラブ」 (Raiku Samuwan in Rabu/Like Someone in Love). I would recommend anything that Kase has been in. For dramas, the whole「SPEC」series is a must. Also,「ありふれた奇跡」(Arifureta Kiseki/Ordinary Miracle) is one of my most cherished dramas ever, indeed, one of my favourite Kase quotes traces back to it (from the Port Magazine interview):
So if [Kase] wasn’t an actor, where [sic] could he imagine himself doing? “I think I would be a plasterer,” he says rather curiously. “I did it once and felt really good about it.”
[SPOILERS!] Puzzle pieces, loosely assembled:
- Mori sleeps like a log until five o’clock. This links to a later scene when he has spent the night sleeping in the yard in front of his room, which he had ceded to Young-sun (she leaves in the morning, telling him to get some rest).
- Young-sun’s staying over may link to Mori’s violent encounter with her producer boyfriend. There’s a scuffle between them, although this is never shown, only implied (Mori has a scratch on his left eyebrow). The scuffle likely follows the boyfriend letting Young-sun’s dog out on the street in a fit of jealousy (Mori finds and returns him). Returning the dog may be Mori and Young-sun’s first encounter (they act like strangers) – though this doesn’t quite make sense. Perhaps the scuffle is actually later and for a different reason (post the cake scene?).
- Kwon has a wedding ring (image below) on her finger throughout the entire film. I have no idea how this can be explained. Perhaps she is married and ill and never does meet Mori – the meeting they have may be imaginary (see also below).
- After coming back to Seoul from the mountains, Kwon retrieves Mori’s letter from the institute and stumbles on the stairs. She is still quite ill, but in later scenes there are claims that she is all well now after returning from the mountain retreat. Suggestions are also that Young-sun was ill when she and Mori knew each other two years ago and that this might have been a reason for their original parting. (Their past connection is barely explained. Indeed, her presence in the film is slight, we only really have Mori’s assurance that he respects her so much to believe in his love for her.)
- The ending – the happily married ever after – may be a dream, the strange dream. It seems too perfect, too abrupt, too unfittingly simple for an indie film. The “strong” daughter may be a link to the tall girl. Perhaps it’s Young-sun’s shoes that Mori finds in front of his room, not Kwon’s. (Young-sun stays over one time.) Maybe it’s both a dream and both real (two alternate storylines co-existing).
- The book Mori is reading is about the concept of time, it being non-linear and not as rigid as we believe to be. The narrative (its lack of chronology) and the ambiguity in the story are a reflection of this concept.
- You might also want to read Dan Sallitt’s musings.