Widely admired for being a deceptively simple auteur, Hong Sang-soo achieves something genuinely simple for a change with “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon,” and not in an unpleasant way. Though the yarn revolves around indiscretions and intrigues, laced with the South Korean helmer’s barbed wit about male foibles, the eponymous heroine exudes a purity and vulnerability rare in Hong’s gallery of vain and blase intellectuals. Stylistically, the film presents no new departures that would either tax or overexcite his arthouse fanbase; commercial success will remain elusive.
Hong’s soft spot for his central character is reflected in his first-ever use of female voiceover, effectively making her perspective the guiding one throughout the film. Film student and aspiring actress Haewon (Jeong Eun-chae, head-turning) prepares to see her mother (Kim Ja-ok) off to Canada to settle down with her son. Early on Haewon has an encounter in the streets of Seoul with Jane Birkin (playing herself), in a whimsical but pretentious sequence revealing Haewon’s subconscious yearning for a closer relationship with her mother.
Her sense of loss is reinforced when, after an ostensibly blissful day together, her mother vows self-centeredly to live it up in Canada, promising without much sincerity to think of Haewon every day. To make matters more lonely, Haewon is having an on-and-off affair with her married professor, filmmaker Seong-jun (Lee Sun-kyung). As they drift from a cafe to a watering hole to a hiking trail, they can never shake off the gossiping company of their peers. A fling Haewon had with classmate Jae-hong intensifies the couple’s ongoing friction. Haewon’s chance meeting with Jung-won (Kim Eui-sung), another professor-filmmaker, suggests a new romantic interest, but the emotionally unstable Seong-jun frustrates any easy resolution.
The film flows most smoothly when the characters are engaging in conversations with an ad-libbed feel, such as Jung-won’s out-of-nowhere wedding proposal to Haewon. Hong’s occasional lapse into familiar meta-filmic devices — dream sequences, the introduction of a couple from his 2010 film “Hahaha” — come off as arch, marring the story’s naturalistic rhythms.
Although the director’s usual medium shots and abrupt zooms keep the characters at arm’s length, to the point where their facial expressions are often deliberately unintelligible, his portrayal of Haewon achieves something approaching sympathy. Her affairs with Seong-jun and Jae-hong recalls the love triangle involving a film student, her classmate and her professor in “Oki’s Movie,” but whereas Oki juggles her amours to her own advantage, Haewon responds to her lovers’ selfishness with a tolerance, or passivity, that sets her apart.
As several characters point out, her strength makes her more likely to get hurt, and even her good looks and affluent upbringing make her the butt of her classmates’ envy. Relative newcomer Jeong’s perf is sometimes wooden, which only enhances her character’s statuesque beauty. Other perfs are slightly more animated.
The low-key drama unfolds primarily in the northern Seoul district of Seo-cheon and Namhan Fortress; to non-Koreans, these locations will seem less memorable than the provincial seaside towns that crop up in umpteen Hong films. The brighter lighting scheme and color palette evident in last year’s “In Another Country” is again evident here; even Haewon’s costumes are a combination of warm, earthy browns and strong primary hues that imbue her with vibrancy and youthfulness. Tech credits are just about adequate.