Three distant mountains; three chatty encounters between long-acquainted women; three comically tiresome intrusions from self-important men shot only from behind. Prolific South Korean arthouse staple Hong Sangsoo has dealt in playful, internally rhyming triplicate before, but never with such a gently sardonic female focus, and seldom as straightforwardly as in his airy, charming Berlin competition trinket “The Woman Who Ran.” (Spoiler alert: No women run.)
Given that it’s been two years since Hong’s last film, which relative to his standard level of output is equivalent to roughly a decade-long absence for any other filmmaker, one might have expected a denser, more complex return, especially given his often slippery, Möbius-strip approach to time and memory. But “The Woman Who Ran” is surprisingly linear — not that its decipherability is going to win this defiantly acquired-taste filmmaker a new host of multiplex-going fans. Woe betide anyone suddenly so turned on to South Korean cinema after “Parasite” that they follow up that hit of Bong with this bit of Hong.
Here, Kim Minhee, Hong’s offscreen partner, onscreen muse and collaborator on seven of his last eight films (and Berlin best actress winner for the terrific “On the Beach at Night Alone”), plays Gamhee, a contentedly married, if perhaps rather bored woman spending a few days — her first unaccompanied by her husband in five years — visiting old friends. Youngsoon (Seo Younghwa) lives outside Seoul, which accounts for why she hasn’t seen Gamhee in a while. Over grilled meat and makgeolli (a milky, lightly sparkling Korean rice wine), they catch up, along with Youngsoon’s flatmate Youngji (Lee Eunmi), until interrupted by a neighbor who requests they stop feeding a local stray cat on account of his wife’s phobia.
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Next, Gamhee visits Suyoung (Song Seonmi) a pilates instructor with a crush on her neighbor and a pesky poet admirer who won’t stop creeping on her since she drunkenly slept with him that one time. And finally, Gamhee runs into Woojin (Kim Saebyuk), who is married to the successful novelist Gamhee used to date and who wants to apologize for past friction — to make right now what was wrong then.
All of this comes to us in Hong’s trademark anti-style, that suggests an impatience with formal aesthetic choices about camera placement and shot variety and other such niceties that has become, over time, its own aesthetic. After a couple of monochrome miniatures with 2018’s “Hotel by the River” and “Grass,” DP Kim Sumin’s simplified imagery is in color, but only barely, with the kitchens, offices and living rooms in which the static two- and three-shots largely exist, lit in the kind of cool, flat daylight that makes everything look fresh and pale. Music plays only during transitions between segments: a sentimental little ditty that sounds distorted for the good reason, Hong claims, that he composed it on his phone. And his trademark shonky zooms abound, although this time one of them foregrounds a profound example of feline acting kismet when Youngsoon’s cat arrives on cue, hits his mark, gives himself a quick wash and then looks straight to camera unimpressed for a time, before, langourously and spectacularly yawning.
As ever, such minimalist presentation invites us to parse the repetitions and cross-references for subtle skeins of significance that may or may not be intentional. Are we supposed to relate, for example, the “mean rooster” who pecks chickens so that they have no feathers on the backs of their necks to Gamhee’s decision to cut her hair into a wavy, neck-baring bob? Probably not, but it’s a diverting little avenue to consider for a moment. Rather like Gamhee seeing a potential different version of herself in all three of these women — one married to her ex, the other two living in circumstances of which Gamhee professes a little envy (“I would like to live in a place like this!” she sighs, twice, in two different homes) — your level of engagement with Hong may depend on your willingness to play this little game, to try on interpretations suggested by the merest coincidences just to see if they fit.
To call the film feminist would be hazardous — and Hong is too scathing in his self-reference to appear to expect such a compliment, slyly acknowledging his shadowy presence as (male) writer-director here in all the offscreen exes, husbands and crushes with creative professions who are self-involved about their own success. (“He deserves to fail” says Gamhee of Yeonghwa’s ex. “It may yet happen,” she serenely replies)
But the film is truly interested in women — to the faintly derisive exclusion of men — in a way that does feel different from Hong’s previous roundelays. If part of that curiosity is the impish, spy-in-the-powder-room desire to know what women say about their menfolk when they’re not around, that’s not all it is. The women also discuss food and the duality of mind and body and how cows have beautiful eyes in conversations that range organically from profound to personal to completely inane.
This deceptively offhand vibe requires the actresses to project effortless naturalism, and they all deliver. And if Kim’s role as written is relatively wan compared to some of her Hong joints, it is still a pleasure just to watch her be, to see her slouch on a sofa, watch a movie or, during one completely unnecessary but somehow not unwelcome scene, check her phone at night alone. In 2004, Hong made a feature called “Woman is the Future of Man,” but it’s the delightfully slight, slightly delightful “The Woman Who Ran” that assumes that that future is now.