I was flustered the first time I saw The Woman Who Ran, the newest film (but, given his prolificity, not for long) by Hong Sang-soo. I couldn’t get a full sense of the game the film plays, though I was pleased by the performances, an equable sound design, and its amiable mood. This last property was most appreciated, since the film of Hong’s I’d seen most recently before The Woman Who Ran was Yourself and Yours, a caustic contraption in which narrative uncertainty is the spine holding the film’s construction in place. An analysis of Hong’s filmography becomes, like Ozu’s, a structuralist maze. Hong’s is a cinema that vibrates with possibilities, both within individual films and between them. The act of watching a Hong film involves trying to temporarily still the vibrations; to identify what the moving pieces mean in relation to each other; and to apprehend the pattern they create. This didn’t help me elucidate The Woman Who Ran the first time. But on second viewing, the film’s agreeable aspects became troubling; and on my third occasion with it, all of these reactions congealed until I was in a state of ecstatic bemusement.
The Woman Who Ran is composed of three encounters involving Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee), as she—twice on-purpose, once accidentally—meets old friends. As she’s apt to remind each of her interlocutors, Gam-hee’s on a trip because her husband is also; they’ve been married for five years and have yet to spend a day apart. She visits Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa) first, bringing unwanted meat and makgeolli; then she stops by for dinner with the forgetful Su-young (Song Seon-mi); last, while alone in a fashionable cinema’s cafe, she happens upon Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), who married one of her former romantic partners.
The simplicity of the structure is mirrored in Hong’s elegant, unadorned style. The conversations are filmed in two-shot for the most part, in long takes, allowing the scenes to go by in an unhurried fashion; only Hong’s trademark zooms and steady pans break up these arrangements, and even then, movements are employed without great emphasis or insistence: after a spell they seem more like neat visual punctuation than an invitation for closer inspection. But at times irony does seem to be at work amid the understatement. At dinner with Young-soon, the camera pans between participants isolated by the zooms, transferring the weight of attention onto them, playing up the fact that beneath the convivial atmosphere, the politesse and camaraderie, some unadmitted truth is present in the room.
In part, it’s Kim’s lovely performance that activates this atmosphere. During her first two visits she is relaxed, leaning and stretching where she sits, resolutely at ease with her friends. In the act of conversing, she maintains an elaborate eye-contact, which bolsters her effusive and reassuring manner. With all three she has to catch herself laughing at something not intended to be funny: an anecdote about a boisterous rooster; the age of Su-young’s haranguing suitor; the way she ignores a proscription about eating in the cinema—she acknowledges her minute transgressions by gingerly lifting her hand to her mouth as though to wipe her smile away. The chance meeting with Woo-jin is the greatest departure from form. Alone in the cafe, Gam-hee is approached by Woo-jin, wishing to discuss the past. Kim’s gestures harden, as if Gam-hee takes exception to this intrusion upon her solitude. But the scene has more to it. A moment of one hand rested atop another in close-up tells a larger story than either character will articulate. But this uneasiness doesn’t last. After taking in a film, which will recur, Gam-hee visits Woo-jin in her office, and their second meeting fits the film’s pattern more exactly: friendliness, hints and suggestions as to frustrations acknowledged and not, and reiterated comments upon the tastiness of food.
But one element of staging in the film suggests a deeper sense of unease. In each of the three meetings, a man makes an appearance upon the scene (since it wouldn’t be a Hong film without possessive claims made by men on women’s time): on every occasion he is positioned with his back to the camera. Even the weakest of these confrontations, the second, between Su-young and an infatuated poet, contains a crucial piece of visual information. It’s the weakest because the performance of his pitiful entreaties is a bit too broad, and the moment feels like it should exist in Yourself and Yours or another of Hong’s movies with a more poisoned surface; The Woman Who Ran’s mode involves subtler methods of drawing attention to its concealed discontentments. But, during this scene, and not for the first time in the film, Gam-hee is watching through a CCTV feed: she has been granted the reverse-angle denied to a viewer, thereby becoming a spectator herself, a fact reinforced later at the cinema.
Although her run-in with her former partner (played by Kwon Hae-hyo) ends with a tremendous kicker, important to the film’s philosophy of talk, the most revealing in terms of the film’s subject is the first, with the man arguing about cats. He comes to the door of Young-soon and Young-ji (Lee Eun-mi), her roommate (who may be Young-soon’s partner), to ask whether they intend to keep feeding the cats in the neighbourhood: a beautiful representative of which, a grey tabby, occupies the background for the scene and is the recipient of the film’s most magnificent zoom. Young-ji displays a keen rhetorical skill in answering his query, at once dissuading him from his argument’s line of reasoning and accommodating him all the same. The discussion is a balancing act between observing good manners and venting honest, though overbearing, displeasure. Young-ji is better at this than he is, as his at first low-burning resentment grows to tip the scales of the encounter, moving what began as an almost polite request to a burdening act of recrimination.
The scene is crucial for how it diagrams the conflicting impulses necessitated in this particular interaction, and for how it demonstrates the same social pressures at work in seemingly more sedate, less threatening moments in the film. Asked about Young-soon, Gam-hee replies that the pair “have been close.” Young-soon looks quizzically: “Have we?,” she asks with a laugh. Later, eating a meal prepared by Su-young, Gam-hee declares her friend’s cooking delicious—a comment met with skepticism. With Woo-jin, Gam-hee receives an apology with a curious remark, which plays in the scene naturally enough, but in retrospect is studded with a certain cruelty: “I never think about the two of you.” The mood is thrown when she meets the second subject of this line, her ex, just as she’s leaving the cinema, who she admonishes for his careless overflow of conversation, his incessant, meaningless talk. I can’t help but note that this chastisement seems not only meant for him, but also for Gam-hee herself.
The Woman Who Ran is Hong’s teasing treatise on the pleasures and puzzles of sociability, presented in such placating, restful textures (like those of the art film Gam-hee goes to see: a shot of the ocean on a loop, playing with lolling guitar accompaniment). The film’s approach is gentle, like Claire’s Camera; Hong doesn’t opt for the abrasive ambiguity of Yourself and Yours, nor does Kim provide one of her emotionally fractious performances, as in On the Beach at Night Alone or hinted to at moments in Grass. Instead, Hong enacts a strategy of withholding that suits Kim’s expressive rhetoric down to its smallest particulars. The film parcels out information about Gam-hee with calculated irregularity. It takes until the second section to find out she’s a florist; until the third to learn that her unnamed husband translates from English. But something essential is expressed outright within minutes of her first meeting: “I don’t want to see anyone.” This line explains the design at work in every conversation, in which Gam-hee contributes, but almost always in a way that directs the priority away from her and onto her scene-partner. In putting Gam-hee front-and-centre, Hong and Kim devise ways of keeping her reserved to the point of anonymity. It also justifies her final decision: to cut her last conversation short, to refuse talk—to disappear.