Two strong, entirely unrelated stories are told in 1998’s The Power of Kangwon Province — and Hong Sang-soo resorts to employing a third narrative to stitch them together, to ambivalent effect. The first part of the film follows a group of recent graduates to the vacation locale of Kangwon, and is of particular interest for the way Hong’s camera registers actress Oh Yun-hong’s tiny physique in contrast with her surprising emotional volatility. Her character, Mi-sook, engages in an ominous dalliance with a Kangwon security officer — and as she lashes-out at friends, gets upset with the officer when he’s late to pick her up, and breaks into tears on a bus ride, our attentions are drawn to the mystery of her emotional imbalance. The second part of The Power of Kangwon Province leads, eventually, to an explanation of Mi-sook’s behavior — though said explanation doesn’t quite stick. More interesting is how Hong here fearlessly starts his film anew, offering a different beginning with a seemingly separate, male group of vacationers, only relatable to the female group on the most general, conceptual level.
It’s no surprise that the theme of reunion between lovers would continue to develop in Hong’s work, while murder mysteries would generally fall by the wayside.
In theory, this second narrative ought to harmonize with, or counterbalance, the first. But either out of authorial caprice or sheer negligence, it stands on its own, and develops its own themes and intrigues quite independent from the first narrative. There are slant rhymes and distorted echoes — especially in the prominence of the locale, Kangwon, and the characters’ relation to nature — but then there’s a section about the men and their daily working compromises that develops no parallel with the first story. The disparity between this film’s ending and its coda creates further dissonance — almost as if Hong is pitting his literary impulses against each other. On the one hand, he ‘ends’ on the same note as The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well: with a headline-worthy criminal act being inserted, unsettlingly, into an otherwise mundane setting, and providing a shock for the audience. Yet, in the coda, a weirdly acrimonious reunion of two lovers feels more serious, has an unusual gravity, and moreover seems tacked on, as if the director just couldn’t let the scene go in the editing room. It’s no surprise that the theme of reunion between lovers would continue to develop in Hong’s work, while murder mysteries would generally fall by the wayside.