Having achieved a level of productivity to rival the B-movie masters of Hollywood’s golden age, Korea’s poet laureate of infantile male intellectuals and the women who bewitch them delivers one of his most appealing recent efforts in “Our Sunhi.” Winner of the director prize in Locarno, Hong’s 15th feature lacks some of the surprising emotional force of his Berlin competition entry “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” earlier this year, but nevertheless delights as it orchestrates the seriocomic ping-ponging of a canny young woman and her three equally hapless suitors. Though the pic’s commercial prospects are characteristically slim, admirers of Hong’s wry worldview will find much to enjoy here.
While Hong has long exalted women in his movies, “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” and now “Our Sunhi” signal a small but significant shift in perspective, largely or entirely unfolding through the eyes of their female protagonists (whose names, in both cases, also figure in the pics’ titles). Wonderfully played by the gamine Jung Yu-mi (in her fifth collaboration with Hong), Sunhi is a recent film-school grad first seen returning to her alma mater to solicit a recommendation letter from her former teacher, Professor Choi (Kim Sang-joong). Sunhi wishes to continue her studies in America, and while the professor tries to dissuade her, stressing the value of practical experience over theory, he finally agrees. There’s just one caveat: He can only write an “honest” letter — a ploy that leads to a rich comic payoff later on.
While grabbing a beer at a nearby chicken restaurant, Sunhi encounters her ex-boyfriend Munsu (Hong regular Lee Sun-kyun), whom she wishes to confront over a film he made based on their failed relationship. As the beer flows, it becomes all too clear that Munsu still hankers for his ex, though the feeling doesn’t exactly appear to be mutual. The plot thickens when Sunhi returns to campus and resolves to use her flirtatious charms to wrest a more flattering recommendation letter from Choi, then thickens again with the introduction of curmudgeonly fellow filmmaker Jaehak (Jung Jae-young). After lending a sympathetic ear to Munsu’s lovelorn laments, he too encounters Sunhi by chance and soon finds himself falling under her spell.
Hong has a lot of fun orchestrating these various comings and goings which, as in a classic farce, revolve around the idea of all three men pursuing the same woman without realizing it — until Hong brings them all together for a dryly hilarious climax set on the grounds of Seoul’s Changgyeonggung Palace. In between, Hong sets up multiple drunken encounters for Sunhi and her suitors, who offer life lessons and career advice that invariably come across as more self-serving than magnanimous. Throughout, Jung (“Oki’s Movie,” “In Another Country”) again proves herself a deft comedienne, with a pouty, somewhat petulant demeanor that says she wishes the world could be more her way.
One of the pic’s repeated mantras, “Dig deep,” sounds like Hong’s own advice to himself — a filmmaker who, like a seasoned jazz musician, produces endless variations on a theme, but within that seemingly narrow band uncovers surprising depths of insight and feeling. Like Eric Rohmer (to whom he has often been likened) or Woody Allen (whose work ethic he shares), Hong can sometimes seem to dash off a film with less than his usual rigor, but “Our Sunhi” benefits from a leanness and sense of purpose absent from some of Hong’s other recent efforts (like the overlong “Hahaha”). It’s a film in which one senses Hong’s technique drained of all excess moisture, as if the film had been set out overnight in a bag of rice.
Technically, the pic sports Hong’s usual (albeit instantly recognizable) lo-fi look, continuing his recent fascination with abrupt zooms.