Like cracking a window in a stuffy room, it sometimes feels as if Hong Sangsoo’s films are where festival lineups go when they need to breathe. The 2021 Berlin Film Festival takes a quick, deep lungful with “Introduction,” an airy 66-minute sampler of everything the Korean director’s fans admire, which is coincidentally everything his detractors dislike. But despite the familiarly strange, gossamer-spiderweb pattern of glancing encounters and dropped connections, “Introduction” is not as featherweight as it might first appear. And contrary to its title, it’s an expansion pack rather than an entry-level starter kit for the Hong Cinematic Universe.
The filmmaker however needs no introducing to the Berlinale. He’s been in competition here four times before, most recently last year, when the delightful “The Woman Who Ran” brought him the Silver Bear for best director. The black-and-white “Introduction,” on which he acts for the first time as his own cinematographer (in addition to directing, writing, editing and composing the plaintive little ditty that sounds out at the halfway point), is not as funny as “Woman.” It sadly does not feature a cat who can apparently yawn on cue. But as recompense, it has a little more gravity to it, which makes it perhaps less peripheral and more integral to Hong’s ongoing, addictive project.
Its already brief runtime is snapped in two, with the halves separated by a couple of years. Both parts are, loosely speaking, centered on a cross-generational introduction. First, Juwon (Park Miso), a student who has come to Berlin to study fashion, meets an artist (Kim Minhee) who is an old friend of her mother’s (Seo Younghwa), and who will put Juwon up until she finds her own place. Two years later, back in Korea, Juwon’s erstwhile boyfriend Youngho (Shin Seokho), who was so devoted to her that he traveled to Berlin for a visit on a whim, meets a famous actor (frequent Hong surrogate Ki Joobong) who is a friend of his mother’s (Cho Yunhee). The aging actor is also acquainted with Youngho’s apparently estranged doctor father (Kim Youngho) — this we know because the opening scenes are set in the doctor’s surgery where the actor has dropped by unexpectedly, delaying Youngho’s own mysterious assignation with his dad.
As always with Hong, it sounds much more complicated than it plays, especially given that this is his third film on the trot to eschew his previously trademark pretzel-shaped timelines in favor of a more straightforward chronology. Albeit one with a big gap in the middle and a dream sequence that is delivered as prosaically real.
It’s the manner of Hong’s presentation that makes his films so scintillating, or so infuriating if you’re on the other side of the Great Hong Divide (crossing over is possible — I’ve done it myself — but be warned, like a taste for olives or salted licorice, there’s no going back). Interactions are full of pauses and awkwardnesses, some of them realistic, some of them heightened to almost theatrical effect. Hong’s is the cinema of the oblique pattern, the imperfect echo, the repetition that changes meaning slightly with each new recitation.
Motifs recur: Characters offer each other herbal tonics and cough drops, cigarettes and soju. Juwon comments on the painter’s prettiness (fair enough, she’s Kim Minhee) several times, just as Youngho is called upon to shyly accept compliments about his good looks more than once. And in some indefinable, metaphysical way, the beginning and the end of the film loosely rhyme, with Youngho’s doctor father pleading a desperate bargain with God as the film starts, and Youngo dreaming of Juwon confessing to him that she believes a recently contracted eye ailment is her “punishment” for breaking up with him near its end.
And at different times, each of the young people offer their elders the culturally respectful option of calling them by informal modes of address. (Amusingly, Kim Minhee’s painter brushes this aside saying, “Here, there is no formal and informal” which is only true, even in liberal Berlin, until some disapproving Frau in a pharmacy gets shirty with your overfamiliar use of “du”.) But the moments highlight a central pleasure in the kind of intricate relationship drama that is Hong’s specialty: the care he takes to make every interaction a prism of public and private, professional and personal, intellectual and emotional facets. And then the care he takes, with his trademark crackpot zooms and crooked pans, to make it look like he took no care at all.
“For him it was important, but for you it was a casual comment,” says Youngho’s mother wonderingly to the actor, who doesn’t recall the words he said to Youngho that day in his father’s surgery that sent the boy off on a new career tangent. But this tiny little movie makes seemingly effortless work of convincing us that a comment, a story, a film and maybe even a whole filmography can be both important and casual — in Hong’s case, radically casual — at the same time. It makes “Introduction” as bracing as a brief dip in a freezing sea after a rather too soju-soaked luncheon.