Two men kick over the traces of a love they once had for the same femme in “Woman Is the Future of Man,” the most accessible but most elusive pic yet from Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo. Time will tell if this more fragile film marks a new direction for the iconoclastic helmer or a divertissement after the previous, weightier “Turning Gate.” Opening locally May 5, and with a high international profile from competing in Cannes May 17, movie looks set to appeal to sophisticated auds in cosmopolitan centers who will tap into the nuanced performances and subtle comedy of manners.
On the surface, this fifth feature by Hong seems his most playful, and very close at times to the classic “Tales” of French auteur Eric Rohmer. People seem to exist in a universe of their own creation, with the meaning of what they’re saying hidden between the seemingly inconsequential, everyday dialogue.
Newcomers to Hong’s movies — and there will be plenty in Cannes unfamiliar with “The Power of Kangwon Province,” “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” (in Un Certain Regard 1998 and 2000) and “Turning Gate” — may wonder what in bejeezus the movie is all about.
Aficionados, however, will see it as almost an expansion, or more detailed jottings, on the similar relationship between the two male friends in “Turning Gate,” themselves drawn in different ways to the same woman (a dancer). The theme, which runs through all Hong’s movies, is the same: male indecision in the face of female decisiveness.
Plotline is typically simple. It’s winter in Seoul, and the first snow has fallen. Heon-jun (Kim Tae-woo), an impoverished filmmaker recently returned from the U.S., meets old pal Mun-ho (local pin-up Yu Ji-tae), now a plastic arts lecturer at a university. At a local Chinese restaurant, they chat about old times, and conversation moves toward Seon-hwa (Seong Hyeon-ah), a painter they both knew when students.
Flashbacks limn their separate times with Seon-hwa; at the end of the meal, the pair go to find her again in Bucheon where Mun-ho says he’s heard she’s running a bar. They both end up staying overnight at her apartment, then go their separate ways, with some issues settled and others still in abeyance.
Just as in “Turning Gate,” where the central character met two very different women during a journey to meet an old friend, chance plays a major role in the equation. As Mun-ho and Heon-jun tentatively renew their friendship, a beautiful young woman can be seen through the window waiting in the street outside. Her presence subtly swings the conversation between the two men toward Seon-hwa, who’s clearly still both on their minds.
Under their professional guises, as a filmmaker and respected prof, each tries his charm on the waitress (Kim Nan-heui) — resulting in her quietly complaining in Chinese to her boss — before, fuelled by drink, they set off to find Seon-hwa. These beautifully played, meticulously blocked restaurant scenes set up the tone of the movie — from its ironic, low-key comedy of manners to its sudden shifts of mood.
The same extends to the flashbacks, in which Seon-hwa is initially introduced. First seen being picked up on the street by a weirdo (Park Jeong-wan), whom we subsequently hear kidnapped and raped her, she’s later portrayed first as a traumatized young woman (in a typically sudden sex scene with Heon-jun that’s marbled with kinkiness) and then as a woman whose attitude to sex and men has irreversibly calcified (in a putative sex scene with Mun-ho).
These are basically three very screwed-up characters, though you’d never know it from the casual way in which they go about their lives. The detail is almost entirely off-screen, with traces remaining between the lines of dialogue: Seon-hwa’s bar job is never shown (though Korean viewers will instantly get the reference to rather declasse Bucheon), nor Mun-ho’s wife (though his marriage is clearly not a perfect one). And the equally casual approach to oral sex throughout the movie speaks volumes for the unsatisfied emotional lives the characters conceal.
Auds looking for neat solutions will be disappointed. But taken asa film about muddling along, “Woman” never bores the viewer with indecisive filmmaking. Basically, it’s an elegant jeu, played and constructed with an almost Gallic lightness heightened by Jeong Yong-jin’s bursts of music, all bouncy piano and pizzicato. Technically, all credits are of a high order, from meticulous lensing of snow-dappled streets and neat interiors by top d.p. Kim Hyeong-gu (“Musa,” “Memories of Murder”) to precision editing that brings pic in at an agreeably tight 87 minutes. Sex scenes are discreet.
Like “Turning Gate,” “Woman” relies heavily on the performances. Casting is not as acute as in “Turning Gate,” though both male leads are in refreshingly atypical roles. Yu, better known as a macho lead in actioners (“Libera Me,” “Natural City”) or as a meller idol (“Ditto,” “One Fine Spring Day”), is fine as the seemingly content, but occasionally irascible, Mun-ho, with an interior tension to his perf. He plays off well against the more relaxed Kim Tae-woo (“JSA”) as Heon-jun. While not as magical as some of Hong’s previous distaff leads, Seong, a former Miss Korea and TV actress, catches the elusiveness of the woman both men thought they loved.
Title comes from a line by 20th-century French poet/novelist Louis Aragon that Hong has admitted is more a catchy title than description of the movie. Per helmer, the future is an abstract concept and unknowable; thus, the future of man is nothing; and thus, woman represents nothing.