Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is an exemplary minor film, shaped more by its incidental pleasures than any grand design. It owes much of its charm to actress Jung Eun-chae, as Haewon; Jung’s natural exuberance is used to energize Hong’s characterization of Haewon, who appears to us as a dreamy, childlike romanticist hiding her passion and sincerity beneath the big winter coats draped over her structured, model-like frame. The film’s title engenders a certain scrutiny, especially toward the scenes of Haewon and her mother, which are memorable in the context of Hong’s career for being relatively undisturbed observations of mundane family life. This does not rob the mother-daughter relationship here of its odd qualities, though these register in Hong’s subtle, surrealist way.
Feels like one of the few Hong films where his interests are attuned to the subject of childhood, or at least childishness.
Haewon’s various attempts at obtaining approval from her mother seem strained and performative, as if she has difficulty separating her adult and child personalities when speaking to her. And perhaps because of the way our attentions are directed to this familial relationship, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon feels like one of the few Hong films where his interests are attuned to the subject of childhood, or at least childishness. (There’s no coming-of-age film in this auteur’s filmography just yet!) The plot proper is a rather typical Hong narrative — a disappointing affair with a professor which leads to Haewon’s life-sized but still unrealizable fantasy — but there’s a poignancy to the way the film surrounds Haewon with “adult” figures, from her idol Jane Birkin to the mature couple from 2010’s Hahaha, to the older, wiser love interest who figures only in Haewon’s dreamworld. Behind the picaresque of Haewon’s interactions with her peers and authority figures is a picture of isolation and helplessness.