Saturday, October 2, 2021

Lamentation on Young Love

Introduction (2021) - Hong Screen Shot 2021-10-02 at 9.20.25 AM Introduction, Hong Sang-soo's second film at the festival, is a timeline jumbled, melancholic piece about young love in the eyes of adults. Shot just before Covid pandemic and the ensuing lockdown in February-March of 2020, this slight film, clocking at mere 65 minutes, is an unusually serene drama for the director. Perhaps it was the result of our collective helplessness and fear for the future that Hong felt when he conceived the project, in regards to the younger generation.

It starts with a doctor practicing Chinese medicine at his office, praying to god that he would devote himself if god gives him a second chance. To do what? We never find out. Distraught, he forgets that he left patients with acupuncture needles still on them in the examining tables and even his son, Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho) who's been waiting to see him in the waiting room, and falls asleep at his desk.

We move to Berlin, where mom (Seo Young-hwa) is dropping off her daughter Ju-won (Park Mi-so) in the care of a painter friend (Kim Min-hee). Ju-won is there to study fashion design. She sneaks off to see Young-ho, who surprised her by flying over to see her. They talk about Young-ho coming to study in Germany too, that they want very much to be together. HIs parents should help him financially to study abroad, he wishes.

Next we see Young-ho summoned by his mom (Cho Yun-hee, also in In Front of Your Face), to consult his career with a famous stage actor (Ki Joo-bong) in Kangwon province. (Hong's favorite destination for his characters to 'run away'to) Young-ho brings his buddy with him to the meeting, just to be his buffer. The meeting gets heated after a copious amount of soju is consumed: the reason Young-ho gave up acting was he felt guilty kissing other women in student films because of his girlfriend. The old actor blows up on him. How naive. 'Hugging' a woman, in Korean alludes to 'making love'. He shouts to the young men in his drunken stupor. "So hugging in acting is also an act of love. Everything an actor does is an act of love! How can your girlfriend not understand that?!"

Young-ho excuses himself and runs out to the winter beach and finds Ju-won playing in the sand. She tells him that she left her German husband and came back to Korea. She is also going blind. He comforts her, saying everything will work out.

Then we do a double take on the beach, Young-ho is braving the water in his underwear, and his buddy warns him of catching a cold. In the distance, his mom is watching him from her hotel balcony.

Characters overlap in three chapters. Hong's cinematic playfulness is there. Loose structure and double takes are there too. But with black and white cinematography and blustery and cold winter landscape give way to the film's overall melancholic mood.

Introduction is a bittersweet love story of a young couple deeply lost, as they are swayed back and forth by the older generation. Even though they went through the same thing in their youth, the elders don't spare the youth in their criticism: they are too weak, too naive, and too idealistic. Kim Min-hee's painter, who is pragmatic and understanding, plays a bridge between two generations here.

The worldwide pandemic exposed many unnerving truth about our society, but how it affects the younger generation is seldom discussed and the future effect of this period remains to be seen. Perhaps Hong is asking us to be more introspective in the time of crisis and cut our young ones some slack.

Chances and Do-Overs

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) - Hamaguchi Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi Ryusuke's second film at the festival, is a breezy, entertaining contemplation on chance and desires and how they all play out differently for different people. Again, Hamaguchi proves himself to be one the most astute observers of human conditions in contemporary cinema.

The film is divided in three equal parts. Episode one is titled Magic (or Something Less Assuring), Ep.2, Door Wide Open and Ep.3, Once Again. Each episode examines different scenario of coincidences that affect its characters with a vastly different outcome. There are no tangible or overlapping connections among the three tales. But the third episode ties the theme of chance and road to redemption nicely, and takes a sweet, positive turn. The film also makes a broad swipe at our Internet, social media dependent society.

The first episode concerns a former flame and jealousy. Meiko (Furukawa Kotone), a fresh-faced model, shares a cap ride with Tsugumi (Lee Hyunri), who works for an agency, after a fashion photo shoot. Tsugumi is in the middle of telling Meiko about an amazing date she had with Kazu (Nakajima Ayumu), a young business executive and how they clicked right away. And Meiko seems to be really into the story, asking details of the date. They even discuss if it's ethical to sleep together on a first date. But it sounds like Kazu's still not out of the shadow of his previous relationship that ended two years ago. It turns out that Meiko is Kazu's ex. And without telling Tsugumi the truth, Meiko confronts Kazu at his office the same night. She psychologically tortures him, getting a confession that he still loves and wants her.

Meiko shows up at the cafe Kazu and Tsugumi's next date. Now Meiko has two choices: She can tell unsuspecting Tsugumi the truth and destroy the budding romance, or be nice and pretend she doesn't know Kazu when she gets introduced and wish the couple the best luck and excuse herself.

The second episode concerns a revenge plot that involves 'honey trap'. Professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko) just humiliated Sasaki (Kai Shouma), a student in front of the entire class. And Sasaki seeks revenge by using his older lover and classmate, a single mom, Nao (Mori Katsuki). And she is up for the challenge. She's read Segawa's just published award winning book and loved it.

Nao visits the professor at his office and asks for a private talk. No can do, the professor informs. He's very careful in the #MeToo age and the door to his office remains open while they talk. Showering him with platitudes, she says she is very taken by his book. She then asks him if she can read an excerpt from the book. He gives an ok. It's a very erotic description of fellatio and he's visibly gripped by her reading. Nao asks if this is what he desires in real life. He says what he wants and what he writes are two different things. Nao then confesses that she has been recording their conversation the whole time, trying to implicate him for an inappropriate behavior and ruin his reputation, but she can't bring herself up to do it. But taken by her erotic rendition of his book, he states that he wants the recording for himself. Nao promises Segawa that she will send it to him via email. We've all clicked that 'Send' button by mistake to unintended receivers and realize it seconds later. That happens in this episode.

The third episode comes with a prologue: An Internet virus released everyone's secrets out in the open. This fact doesn't figure deeply into the story but contribute to the over all theme of human connections and false sense of security in the Internet age. Natsuko (Urabe Hisako), an introverted woman comes to town to attend a high school reunion. It's been twenty years. She is overjoyed when she finds her long lost love at the train station. But after talking for a while, they realize that they are not who they thought they were to each other, but complete strangers. But the strong bond has formed between two women and they take turns to take on the role of their long lost friends.

We all have regrets and wish for do-overs sometimes, Hamaguchi exercises these second chances and fantasies in intimate human stories in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It's funny and touching and very well acted. Maybe it's the Covid time thing, but there is a pleasure seeing characters just talking to each other at length in Hamaguchi's delicately written dialog. It's one of those films you want to see it again immediately after finishing it.

Drunken Promises

In Front of Your Face (2021) - Hong In Front of Your Face The voice-over that starts Hong Sang-soo's In Front of Your Face is more like a prayer. It belongs to Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young), a serene faced, aging beauty crashing on the couch in her younger sister Jeong-ok (Cho Yun-hee)'s high-rise apartment in the sprawling suburb of Seoul. Living abroad, she is visiting her sister for the first time since their mom's funeral long ago. Again, her narration has a feel of detachment and a confessional. Something is up. So starts yet another wry snapshot of life by Hong, who remains prolific as ever, with presenting two films in this year's NYFF. But In Front of Your Face turns out to be much more emotionally invested affair, if less inventive structurally and narratively from a formalist standpoint.

Over the morning coffee, the sisters commiserate about their lives. Jeong-ok is rightfully miffed that Sang-ok never contacted her for all these years and never visited. The older sister is quite cagey about her life story, but the her narrative is pretty typical immigrant story - financial hardships, peripheral jobs, no savings unlike native Koreans who seem to have a lot of money to buy real estates in a housing boom, Sang-ok observes.

It is springtime and everything is in bloom. The greenery surrounding mega vertical structures, in Hong's minimalist aesthetics, complete with auto zooms, looks oppressively sweltering, rather than calm and refreshing. It turns out Sang-ok was a famous actress as some fans recognizes her in the street, on the way to a meeting. It is revealed that she is in Korea partly to have a meeting with a film director later that afternoon. But again, she is tightlipped about it. Jeong-ok drags her around to show new real estate developments, in the hopes of having her estranged older sister coming back to Korea permanently and settle down near her.

After splashing some ddukbokki (spicy rice cake) juice on her blouse at her nephew's small snack shop, Sang-ok is off to see the film director. But on the way there, she stops by at an old house where she grew up, which now is a fancy gift shop. She immediately regrets her visit, beating herself up for being nostalgic and sentimental. Because her zen-like voiceover has been suggesting to live only in the present - to 'seize the day'.

The meeting with a film director (played by Hong regular Kwon Hae-Hyo) takes place in a bar in a trendy part of Seoul. He arranged a meeting so they can be alone together. He is a big fan ever since he saw her films in his youth in the 90s and wants to do a film with her. After Chinese food delivery with copious amount of liquor, the truth comes out. She only has 5-6 months to live. Heartbroken, they cry and laugh together. The director then suggests they take a trip together the next day to Kangwon province, he would like to make something very quick and capture her on film as much as he can. She asks him if he wants to sleep with her. They have a moment. It's raining outside and all so romantic. It's a scene right out of some fatalistic French romance movie. Would Hong really end a movie like this?

In Front of Your Face may lack Hong's narrative and structural inventiveness but it has a nasty hook that gets you at the end, defying the conventional romance narrative. It's wickedly funny too. Lee Hye-young, who started her career in Lee Jang-ho's salacious Korean classic Between the Knees (1984) and starred in countless TV dramas, is a revelation here. Her graceful features and beauty dominate the screen in a bittersweet performance. Her hysterical laugh at the end listening to a voicemail over and over, is the funniest/saddest film moment of the year. I really adored this film.