The first striking thing about 2006’s Woman Is the Future of Man is its blunt exhibition of various cruel and brutal sexual behaviors, which range from more typical, regretful encounters to acts which can be described as criminal. Though Hong isn’t often thought of as a shock-effect arthouse director — anymore — there was a time when his unstylish presentation of sex acts could really provoke and disturb. In particular, the rape of Park Seon-hwa (Sung Hyun-ah) in Woman Is the Future of Man, which occurs between cuts — an ellipses after she’s dragged into a car and before she talks about it in a cafe — is hard to shake. The scene right after is rough as well: Kim Hyeon-gon (Kim Tae-Woo) washes Seon-hwa’s body in a bathroom, then has sex with her, bluntly stating, “This is to clean you.” But on the other hand, there is something exaggerated and absurd about the lower depths these characters sink to that allows for a kind of gallows humor to take shape. And the structure of Woman Is the Future of Man as a whole — due to being founded upon the repeated appearance of Seon-hwa through the years, complete with hairstyle changes and attitude transformations, and contrasted against the relative fixity of the male characters — takes on a comic rhythm that, while it isn’t ‘ha-ha’ funny, is amusing.
There is something exaggerated and absurd about the lower depths these characters sink to that allows for a kind of gallows humor to take shape.
Perhaps the reason why Woman Is the Future of Man feels difficult, but also rewarding, is because the film’s darkness and its comedy insist on existing together, and rather awkwardly — whereas Hong has taken deliberate steps to reconcile these two elements when they’ve appeared in his films later on. Despite there being something bracing about the way that so much awfulness is channeled through Hong’s prankster temperament, the complexity of the project does eventually seem to be too much to handle, and Woman Is the Future of Man grinds to a standstill, unsure of how much more disorientation it can support. There’s even a hint of bitterness detectable here in the margins, accentuated perhaps by the effect of the snow-covered ground crunching under the weight of people who are trying to stay upright whilst taking steps down a slope; a defeatism hovers over the film, unrelieved by Hong’s work.