The title could not be more of a red herring in Hong Sang-soo’s 16th feature, “Hill of Freedom,” its noble implications lending outward grandeur to a romantic triangle that reps a cream puff even by Hong’s trifling standards. Cream puffs have their merits, though — principally the aerated, uncomplicated sweetness that characterizes this barely feature-length distraction, the light emotional foibles and regrettably careless cinematic construction of which are of a piece with the helmer’s swiftly produced recent work. Save for a cute structural gimmick that is probably best sustained in a film this slight, there’s little to stop this agreeable bit of festival filler from evaporating from memory before the next Hong joint comes down the pike.
The Hill of Freedom is not, as it turns out, a towering historical landmark, but a cozy coffee shop in Seoul’s picturesque Bukchon village — the kind of laidback, chichi establishment that has housed many a mellow, meandering conversation in Hong’s past films. Its Japanese signage, meanwhile, makes it especially welcoming to Mori (the reliably engaging Ryo Kase), a diffident Japanese teacher who has returned to Seoul two years after a stretch of employment there, where he fell head over heels for Korean language-school colleague Kwon (Seo Young-hwa). Sent into a tailspin after Kwon rejected his marriage proposal, he is determined to track her down and win her back.
This modest quest is recounted in nonlinear flashbacks, as the narrative takes a one-way epistolary format. It opens with Kwon receiving a chunky folder of undated letters written to her by Mori in the course of his search, and delivered to their former shared workplace; when she drops the folder and the pages scatter, however, she hurriedly regathers them in non-chronological order. The viewer, therefore, follows Mori’s mild misadventures in precisely the order that Kwon reads them — and gradually pieces together the progression of another delicate romance experienced along the way, as Mori finds himself wooed by Youngsun (Moon Sori), the pretty, kindly young proprietor of the eponymous cafe.
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It’s a clever device that perhaps doesn’t bear close scrutiny as the onetime lovers inch toward a reunion, but the shuffle of events does neatly convey Mori’s own sense of circling ennui. It says much about the stasis of his life between loves that the random structure isn’t at all hard to follow, though it equally underlines the sense of innocuous inactivity that characterizes so much of Hong’s work.
Furthermore, the fragmented structure effectively mirrors the halting broken English in which the film’s dialogue is mostly spoken — an imperfect common tongue shared by Mori and his various Korean acquaintances, who also include his landlady’s puppyish, pushily friendly nephew Sangwon (Kim Eui-sung). Hong has a good ear for the awkwardly swift lurches that can occur in such half-comprehending exchanges between the crushingly banal and the prematurely intimate, though the film’s linguistic conceit may strike some viewers as excessively precious.
At least none of the film’s gambits can be said to outstay their welcome with a running time of just 66 minutes; credit the director for recognizing that his protagonist’s problems are minor enough to be resolved in that time. Ryo’s gangly, deadpan appeal, meanwhile, goes a long way toward making the film’s indulgences palatable. It’s tempting to complain that the film’s women are a bit samey in their fey, guileless charm, though Hong’s most ardent defenders might counter that the film gently pokes fun at the limitations of the male perspective.
Technically, beyond the promising brightness of the opening credits, the film’s a wash, with regular d.p. Park Hong-yeol further indulging Hong’s preference for flat digital imagery, moodless lighting and sudden, gauchely executed zooms. This kind of anti-aesthetic, regarded affectionately by apologists, has become part and parcel of the director’s creative signature — though when one considers the kind of sensory bliss achieved with equivalent gossamer material by less celebrated filmmakers like Arvin Chen, it’s hard not to wish the prolific auteur would make a little more effort.