A well-traveled fest item since it began its career in Cannes’ Certain Regard sidebar this year, Hong Sang-soo’s “The Power of Kangwon Province” is an altogether more assured outing than his debut name-maker, “The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well” (1996), holding fast to its central concept and with none of the earlier film’s messy asides. This minimalist meditation on fate’s little tricks, and the way in which lives fail to intersect when most needed, has almost zero theatrical chances offshore but could find berths on arty webs interested in showcasing the more serious side of the Korean renaissance.
As in “Pig,” Hong focuses on the hidden currents beneath apparently boring, everyday lives and actions — the major irony here being that Kangwon province, a popular destination for Koreans wanting to escape the claustrophobia of nearby Seoul, doesn’t brighten up the characters’ lives one bit. Two-part pic is a celluloid iceberg, with most of the backstories buried from view and only fleetingly referred to.
First half follows three girls on a trip to the mountains in Kangwon: Among them is Ji-suk (spirited newcomer Oh Yun-hong), who’s nervy and on-edge after a breakup with her lover, quarrels with her friends (Park Hyun-yeong, Im Sun-yeong) and later returns for an almost-affair with a young policeman (Kim Yu-seok) they met. Second part, some 45 minutes in, centers on university lecturer Cho Sang-kweon (Baek Jong-hak), who takes a similar trip with a school friend (Chun Jae-hyun), has an almost-liaison with a woman he spies, but ends up paying for sex with a hooker.
It’s only at the start of the second half, set on the same train as the opening of the first part, that we realize Cho’s story takes place simultaneously to the girls’, and that Cho may well be Ji-sook’s ex-lover. Though the men and the women never meet in the mountains, they crisscross some of the same locations and events, including the mysterious death of a woman who may have been pushed off a mountaintop.
Auds into such Lelouchian games of intertwined destinies and near-misses will get more of a charge out of the movie than those looking for clear explanations and something substantial to chew on. Pic does, however, have a sly humor in its dialogue that keeps the pot bubbling even when the narrative fire seems to have been extinguished. And unlike many films centered on ennui and emotional rootlessness, it’s never boring.
Tech credits are solid, and the picture is attractively shot, despite Hong’s ruthlessly fixed camera.