Our Sunhi (Hong Sangsoo, 2013)

The culmination of the Jung Yoomi films, in which a young film student unsuccessfully navigates the attentions of several competing men, none of whom see her for who she actually is, blinded by their perceptions of her prettiness, her innocence, her artistic sense, and so on. This cycle began with Lost in the Mountains, a short film in which Jung vacillates between the love of a professor (Moon Sungkeun) and a fellow film student (Lee Seongyun). After some time away, she runs into each man in turn and drinks a lot. The same three actors reprised their relative positions in the triangle in Oki’s Movie, which in its four-part structure presents three separate short films about the love triangle, each roughly corresponding to the perspective of one of the principals. The third film is only loosely related: in In Another Country, Jung plays a woman hiding out with her mother in a hotel. To pass the time, she writes three different stories about a French woman (Isabelle Huppert) who gets caught up in infidelity with an older man (in the second story played by Moon Sungkeon) while also flirting with a gregarious lifeguard (played by Yoo Junsang). Finally, in Our Sunhi, Jung, as Sunhi, returns to her old haunts after some time away in search of a recommendation letter from her old film professor (Kim Sangjoong). The initial letter is cold and not very complimentary, but when Jung suggests the possibility of romance, the professor revises the letter into a glowing statement of admiration. At the same time, Jung meets, separately, two old flames, both fellow students, one from her class (Munsu, played by Lee Seongyun) and another slightly older (Jaehak, played by Jung Jaeyoung), both of whom are still in love with her, both of whom Jung gets drunk with, and one of whom she even seems to kind of like.

The problem, as is almost always the case for women in Hong Sangsoo films, is that all of the men see Sunhi as anything other than a collection of virtues, which they each in turn describe to each other in exactly the same terms, none of them knowing that they’re all thinking of the same woman. Sunhi has one clear goal: she wants desperately to get out of town, but to do so she has to navigate through these needy, obnoxious, self-obsessed men who have a vision of her that has very little relation to reality beyond the obvious fact that she is very pretty (as they see her, she is their Sunhi). Again and again in Hongs movies, women are described as ideals: the best person, good, innocent, pure, brave, honest. Or they are described according to the scheme outlined by Kim Euisung in The Day He Arrives: name a quality (shyness) and then assert the presence of its opposite underneath (bravery), the kind of astrology 101 that everyone should see through, but the men keep doing it (and it even seems to work sometimes, as on the very woman to whom Kim explains this method). These are the conditions by which Sunhi is not seen, and yet she chooses to hang around these men anyway, and not entirely for the mercenary purpose of getting her recommendation letter. For Sunhi too, rather than simply being a victim of male sexual aggression, has a sex drive of her own: she thinks Jaehak is just as pretty as he thinks she is. And even, towards the end, she seems genuinely open to the idea of an affair with the professor.

She is saved from that fate, though, by the chance fact that all three men are obsessed with her. It leads them all to the same place, one of those massive fort complexes/parks that so dominate later Hong films. She’s there to meet the professor, but lets slip her location to Munsu, while the professor does the same with Jaehak. When Sunhi wanders off to the restroom, each of the other men shows up, and what had been, for the entirety of the film, a series of two-shots, the standard Hong composition, suddenly becomes a three-shot, with no room left for Sunhi. Receiving a surreptitious text message, she manages to slip away, leaving the three men to wander the complex, alone. We, and I suspect they, never see Sunhi again.

The Jung Yoomi movies are a major step forward for Hong, completing the process begun in Tale of Cinema and Woman on the Beach of allowing the women to take over his narratives from the insecure, often outright terrible, men who had driven almost all of his earlier work. This not only allows new perspectives on the same basic situations, but it also makes the movie much more fun to watch. Rather than acerbic satires on terrible men and the women they terrorize (Woman is the Future of Man, for example), Hong finds a fuller expression of human foibles, both major and minor. I like to think of Oki as the author of these films, having graduated from film school and writing new parts for herself, always seeking to understand the triangles she finds herself in and always struggling against the demands of film form and narrative structure (“two turning points!”). I like to think that her escape her is her way out, just as a love of fried chicken seems to be the way out for Ye Jiwon, the heroine of Turning Gate and Hahaha. Kim Minhee’s solution, in her four films thus far, appears to be simply leaving the men behind (as in Right Now, Wrong Then, The Day After, On the Beach Alone at Night and possibly Claire’s Camera). But no Hong heroine has yet been able to convince a man to see her for herself, rather than his imposed idea of what a woman should be, with the lone, glorious exception of Minjeong in Yourself & Yours.