In Front of Your Face (Hong Sangsoo, 2021)
Hong Sangsoo’s latest feature, his second this year, is his first film not to feature actress Kim Minhee since 2016’s Yourself and Yours. Kim instead serves as Production Manager, and her sensibility seems to pervade the film, even if we can’t see her work. Or rather, the sensibility that I’ve come to see as a significant departure from Hong’s earlier works that coincides with the beginning of his professional and personal relationship with Kim seems especially on display in In Front of Your Face. It’s a character study of a former actress who returns to Korea after several years living in the United States. In the first half of the film she wanders around drinking coffee with her sister and visiting the building where she grew up. In the second she has a meeting (over Chinese food and alcohol) with a film director who admires her work and wants to make a film with her. He, of course since he is a thoroughly Hongian man, wants to sleep with her (despite being married), but she has deeper concerns.
The adoption of a female perspective is not new for Hong, in fact woman are the prime movers of almost every film he has made in the second half of his career (with a few exceptions like Hill of Freedom and The Day He Arrives). But where in the earlier cycle of Jung Yumi films (Oki’s Movie, Our Sunhi, In Another Country, List, Lost in the Mountains) the heroine is more or less identical to the male heroes of Hong’s earlier career (the more likable ones at least), his films with Kim Minhee feature much more complicated, less fathomable women, different figures entirely from the horny and shall we say morally flexible film directors of Hong’s earlier work. Partly this is a consequence of Kim’s soulfully serene screen presence, but more and more Hong seems to be growing less and less reliant on clever structural games in favor of a more or less straightforward exploration of a wide range of raw emotional experiences: death of a parent (Hotel by the River); death of a friend (Grass); middle-aged regret (The Woman Who Ran); generational miscommunications (Introduction). In Front of Your Face doesn’t seem to play any games: it’s quite straightforwardly about homecoming and mortality and faith.
Our hero, Sangok, played by Lee Hyeyoung, begins the film with a voiceover, repeating to herself a prayer, like a reminder, or a mantra, that everything is full of grace, an admonition to live in the moment, neither the past nor the future, but with what is in front of her face. She’ll repeat this message throughout the film, not tied to any particular religion, but spiritual nonetheless. It colors the first half of the film, which is in most respects typical Hongian comedy of manners stuff, small talk about coffee and real estate speculation and awkward interactions with strangers masking a mood of melancholy belying the hopefulness of Sangok’s mantra: if she was actually happy, she wouldn’t need to remind herself so much to live in the moment.
We’ve seen this kind of spirituality in a Hong film before, namely from Kim’s character in The Day After, a film which is specifically referenced during Sangok’s long conversation with the director. He recalls a shot in film she made some 30 years ago — her face against a window with snow falling outside, a key sequence in The Day After and one of the more transcendent shots of Hong’s career. The self-referentiality doesn’t stop there however: the director suggests they go to in Kangwon Province (Hong’s second feature was The Power of Kangwon Province); the bar they meet in is called “Novel”, the same name as the bar in The Day He Arrives, (though they sit at a different table); at one point Sangok picks up a guitar and plays the “Minuet in G major”, one of those Classical 101 tunes which Hong of which Hong is so fond (“Pomp and Circumstance” in Oki’s Movie for example, or Pachelbel’s “Canon” in Grass) (The “Minuet” was long attributed to Bach, but in the 1970s it was determined to have been written by Christian Petzold, who shares a name with a film director whom Hong must know well from the international festival circuit). There’s also the weird fact that Lee Hyeyoung herself is the daughter of a film director named Lee Manhee and Kim Minhee’s character in Claire’s Camera was named “Manhee”. It’s like all of this weird quirks and idiosyncrasies that have made up Hong’s career have come together in this one scene, only to founder in the face of Sangok’s faith.
Spoilers I suppose here, but can you imagine thinking a Hong Sangsoo film could possibly be spoiled? Sangok confides in the director that she is dying, with less than a year to live (we don’t know why, but cancer probably, from all the smoking Hong so lovingly films). Suddenly her desire to return home and reconnect with her family and her youth makes sense, as does her struggle to remind herself to live in the now and treasure each moment. The director, though sympathetic, can’t fathom this. He suggests maybe they instead make a short film (in Kangwon), but she knows what he’s really after. She asks him point blank if he wants to sleep with her and he sheepishly says “yes”. The dinner wraps and after cleaning up a bit the two go outside and share a lovely silent moment in a rainstorm (recall the end of On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, or the finals moments of In Another Country and Hill of Freedom).
The next morning begins the same way the film opened, Sangok asleep on her sister’s couch. She listens to a voicemail from the director, backing out of their next meeting (and tryst, he believes) presumably from some moral qualm about infidelity. Though we don’t know his reasoning for sure, 25 years of Hong Sangsoo movies have taught us that this man is agonizing over his potential infidelity. But all Sangok can do in response is laugh. Loudly, and a lot. She even plays his message again to laugh all the harder. Because what else can you do in the face of such men? After she catches her breath, Sangok gets her coffee and watches her sleeping sister, gently touching her hand. Like she did the day before.