Hong Sangsoo characters have a habit of — you might even say a genius for — diffidence in the face of profundity. In that way, they’re very like the films in which they appear: outwardly casual, slight, polite, holding pain and truth and existential observation in check with an airy gesture, a sad smile or, in “In Front of Your Face,” the South Korean auteur’s second film this year (after the Berlin-awarded “Introduction”), an unexpected peal of utterly genuine, soul-repairing laughter.
Certainly, Sangok (the luminous Lee Hyeyoung, who, like her character, gained considerable fame in South Korea decades ago but has not acted much recently) laughs at the strangest moments. A merry, musical gurgle bursts from her after she drunkenly shares her most painful secret — one she has not even confessed to her sister — with a relative stranger, whose sobbing response is much more appropriate. And again, at the very end of this wonderful, winsome tale, when the potentially important grace-note opportunity she’s been offered evaporates over a single phone message, Sangok dissolves into an infectiously rueful, joyful belly laugh. One way to rob cruel fate of its triumph is by showing that despite its dispensing life and death, it is powerless over your mood.
Sangok is a well-known ’90s actor who is now living in the States but has returned to Seoul for a visit. She’s staying with her sister Jeongok (Cho Yunhee) — whom she discovers she does not know terribly well — and has a loose plan to meet up with a celebrated Korean director (one of Hong’s frequent stand-ins, Kwon Haehyo). During her stay, she breakfasts with Jeongok, sneaks a cigarette under a bridge, stains her blouse at a noodle shop and visits the house where she used to live, which is now a boutique. The encounters are banal, the dialogue eccentric, halting and very Hong Sangsoo. And yet not so, because we have already heard fragments of Sangok’s occasional internal monologue — a flourish not typical of Hong — and these little poetic shards of observation have helped us guess the nature of Sangok’s secret, even though it’s not till two-thirds through that she states it aloud.
It can be difficult, when discussing Hong’s films, to sort the stand-alone virtues of the work in question from the manifold pleasures gained from a compare-and-contrast critique of the movie as a fragment of a greater whole, a riff on prevailing themes. But while “In Front of Your Face” presents that dilemma as well, it is less beholden to the looped rhythms and circular conversations that give a prismatic sheen to so many of Hong’s 26-title-strong feature filmography. Instead there is an unusual emotional directness to this film, which is perhaps more intimately involved with one remarkably sympathetic woman’s internal journey than any of his since the 2017 Berlin Silver Bear winner “On the Beach at Night Alone.” Even there, the story was silvery opaque and oblique; here, it is simple and possesses what can only be called a hook, not something that Hong films can traditionally boast.
The drinking scene between Sangok and the director is a case in point of the minor altered detail marking a demonstrably different atmosphere. Where there’s usually soju, here there is Chinese liquor. And where there are normally conversational games and gambits about memory and misremembering, and sly, easily retracted flirtations, here there’s an almost overt courtship happening underneath the surface exchanges, even before Sangok asks bluntly, “You want to sleep with me, don’t you?” and the director confesses he does.
With Hong wearing all available hats — as he has been doing increasingly — as writer, director, editor, composer and cinematographer (his partner and muse, Kim Minhee, does not appear on-screen but gets a line producer credit), we know it’s not by accident that even the shooting style is keyed to a slightly different register. Many of Hong’s recent films have been monochrome, or of such a deliberately blanched palette that they might as well have been. But “In Front of Your Face” features vivid pops of color: green grass, a red top, a bright blue umbrella — that burst out like Sangok’s enlivening bouts of laughter.
At one point, Sangok and the director are caught in a downpour and share a cigarette. She wears a trench coat. They juggle an umbrella. The alley is narrow, and at the far end a turquoise shutter frames them. It is an assemblage of Hong elements viewed from a moving point, and for a second, it fleetingly coalesces into an achingly romantic Wong Kar Wai composition. And then it flies apart again, the way all things do, the way all promises made rashly under the influence of alcohol are broken in the sober light of morning. It’s a melancholic observation, but Hong’s film and his radiant star are not made for melancholy, and so instead they laugh — at the absurdity of hoping for some castle in the air when there’s so much life all around you, always, right in front of your face.