Chance and happenstance bisect in serendipitous ways in Hong Sang-soo’s sixth feature, “Tale of Cinema,” another step for the South Korean auteur along a path that started to become clear with his last movie, “The Future of Man Is Woman.” Again highly reminiscent of the films of Gallic vet Eric Rohmer (and again co-produced with French coin), this one has a sheer simplicity and clarity — plus an attractive underlying optimism — that could win the helmer new friends on the international arthouse circuit.
Film spins on a trick halfway through that takes a while to assimilate on first viewing. But compared with the more emotionally complex “Future” — and certainly compared with many of his highly schematic earlier movies, such as “Turning Gate” and “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” — there’s a relaxed charm to “Tale” that more directly communicates itself to the viewer.
A young man, Sang-weon (Lee Gi-woo), bumps into a young woman, Yeong-shil (Eom Ji-weon), in the street one day. They haven’t seen each other for two years, since they had a relationship in which they were both attracted to each other but realized it wouldn’t work out. After some heavy drinking, they try to have sex — shown in a discreetly realistic way typical of Hong’s movies — and then pact to commit suicide together by swallowing some pills.
As they walk and talk, and check into a small hotel, and talk some more before swallowing the pills, it starts to snow outside — just like in a standard South Korean meller. The attempted suicide, which has an unreal air and apparent lack of any deep motivation, goes wrong, and Sang-weon is later bawled out by his mom.
At the halfway point, pic introduces a new character, Tong-su (Kim Sang-gyeong), who goes to a movie theater for a retrospective screening of a film by a onetime friend, helmer Lee Hyeong-su (never seen). Yeong-shil, now looking several years older and with glasses, is also there. The film was her first movie. Tong-su approaches her in the street, the two cautiously get to know each other, and he eventually learns the director is now seriously ill in hospital.
As this story develops, the connection between the film’s two halves becomes clear, leading to a sense of personal liberation for Tong-su and a new beginning to his life.
Sharp-eyed auds, and especially those familiar with the very different rhythms of Hong’s films and mainstream South Korean cinema, may catch on to the central trick sooner than others. (Other clues, such as a clearly dated concert hoarding in the first half, only make sense later on.) But overall, the film is more than just a clever jeu on reality vs. fiction: With “Future” and now this, Hong appears to be pursuing a warmer, more humanistic path in his career, rather than simply taking time out from weightier movies.
Aficionados of helmer’s work will notice all his trademarks present and correct: mealtime scenes, conversations in the street and sudden cuts to sexual activity. Less comforting is his use of the zoom for emphasis during a scene, a device that works against the film’s natural sense of flow.
Performances are relaxed, with Eom especially engaging in the two-faces-of-Eve role of Yeong-shil. Tech package is pro — if even more modest than that of “Future” — while occasional perky music by Jeong Hong-jin keeps the mood light throughout.