For Hong Sang-soo, a filmmaker who usually favors fairly taut narrative structures, Hill of Freedom is something of a departure. The film operates in a mode of consistent fluctuation, with changing languages, temporal discontinuity, and an overall uncertainty as to the relationships’ trajectories. This is, in large part, due to a deceptively clever framing device: South Korean Kwon (Seo Young-hwa) is first seen reading letters left by her Japanese lover, Mori (Ryo Kase), who just visited her in Seoul after the two spent years apart. Mori missed seeing Kwon because she had an out-of-town doctor’s appointment, so Kwon reads Mori’s letters slowly, and the events mentioned in them play-out on screen, revealing his activities while she was away. After reading the first letter, however, Kwon suddenly faints from a dizzy spell, dropping the remaining letters and scrambling their order. This sets up a situational context — the jumbled order of the narrative. We as the audience, along with Kwon, are then left to piece these episodes together, within the film’s overall framework. But as we know much less about Mori than Kwon does, this becomes particularly difficult. Take, for instance, the scene in which Mori has dinner with a café waitress, Young-sun (Moon So-ri): the two begin to talk, in specific detail, about the themes in a book that Mori’s been reading. It’s not very clear, by this point, how this conversation first started; however, about three scenes later, we finally see Mori when he firsts enters the café, and first tells Young-sun about the book — which is titled Time.
Operates in a mode of consistent fluctuation, with changing languages, temporal discontinuity, and an overall uncertainty as to the relationships’ trajectories.
According to Mori, time is merely a construct invented to give order and meaning to life; which means, in his view, it doesn’t exist. Hong takes off on this sentiment, discarding linearity, and allowing individual scenes to be defined by the various, contemporaneous character dynamics within those scenes. Take Mori’s relationship with Sang-won (Kim Eui-sung), a man staying at the same guesthouse as Mori, which changes over the course of the film — but with a reverse chronology. A scene where the two share dinner has Mori drunkenly tell Sang-won he knows about him “owing lots of money to different people.” It seems like a bit of a throwaway line at first, until being re-contextualized later, during what’s actually the two characters’ initial encounter: Sang-won’s massive debts have rendered him homeless, forcing him to move-in with his retired aunt. In retrospect, Mori’s off-hand remark now becomes crass and rude, which then has the effect of coloring our attitude toward him from this point on. Even this process is complicated, though, by Mori speaking broken English during the entirety of his visit to Seoul (he doesn’t know Korean). This serves as just another way for Hong to challenge our basic understanding of what exactly can be gleaned from different, skewed perspectives — which is taken to its logical conclusion at the end of Hill of Freedom. Two different realities are provided that could serve as the end of Mori’s story: a happy ending, with Kwon, and an unsatisfying one, with Young-sun. If we take Mori at his word, maybe he deserves the happiness he finds; but if we accept what Hong may be wanting us to understand about Mori, the more meager resolution is fitting.