The Woman Who Ran continues Hong’s run of affecting personal exorcisms, here crafting a memorable protagonist who is equally mysterious and familiar.
Hong Sang-soo’s excoriating relationship dramedies have evolved into personal — and disarmingly genteel — exorcisms in the last decade. The surface-level masculine brutishness of Woman Is the Future of Man or his debut, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, have receded to the peripheries, dictating the events therein; Hong has become more a director of aftereffects, occurring in tandem with the fallout of his own scandalous relationship with actress Kim Min-hee, as evinced in 2017’s twofer of On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After, which jointly located a specific ennui at the liminal intersection of creator and muse, when feelings begin manifesting onscreen as well as off. Those films — and to a lesser, though no less fascinating, extent, Claire’s Camera and Hotel By the River — untangled infidelity from festival circuit filmmaking by giving exclusive attention to the jilted party. The fuck-ups of the perennial film director character were often documented, and even if visual attention has shifted, their narrative significance remains.
This navigation of checkered history and absences continues in The Woman Who Ran, Hong’s seventh film with Kim. Film culture is mostly sidelined in this tripartite, conversation piece project, though its inclusion near the close is anything but extraneous, a considerate linkage to past Hong in a film that otherwise stakes new territory. Gam-hee (Kim) meets with three different women at three different intervals — two planned, one coincidental — all occurring during her first time being away from her husband of five years. Gam-hee’s references to the strength of her relationship are never validated nor denied, as the audience is left to trust in her somewhat subdued affirmations, with conversation oftentimes turned back on her hosts. Each new wrinkle added to Hong’s already well-trod universe — the sudden appearance of rude neighbors, a hypnotic, presumed installation film of waves crashing upon a beach, an absolute money-shot of a yawning cat — works in affecting lockstep with the expectedly cleaved structure, the general opacity of Gam-hee revealing repressed desires belonging to both her and those she encounters.
Because of the rich, shared relationships between nearly all the characters, Gam-hee is only a nominal cipher; she’s projected upon, certainly, but these confessions and emotional extrapolations are inextricable from her own character. If The Woman Who Ran recalls any film outside of the critical wheelhouse of oft-speculated Hong influences, it’s Mike Leigh’s Another Year, with the dynamic inverted, as Gam-hee’s ostensible stability runs opposite other’s precarious personal lives, which are invaded by those aforementioned rude neighbors, hangers-on, and even stalkers. As she bears witness to all these encroachments (sometimes just in the form of a story), Hong adapts a voyeuristic quality, something his previous male protagonists have been privileged more, though to more intentionally squeamish results.
Gam-hee’s unassociated presence within these fraught encounters are brought forth with Hong’s simple-yet-enlightened staging and framing: she stands behind her two friends as their neighbor derides their charitable cat feeding; later, she watches a CCTV feed of her friend speaking with her young, troubled neighbor; when an obvious stalker announces himself at the door of friend’s apartment in the second segment, Gam-hee watches from the hallway, the camera utilizing each plane of focus as it shoots from outside the door, giving the intruder a troubling, faceless menace; finally, knowledge of her ex-boyfriend’s literary fame is delivered by his skeptical wife. That the first two segments introduce Gam-hee’s hosts independent of her, only to then later supplant conversation with prickly confrontation clinches her mutable outsider status, which Kim’s subtle curiosity as an actor only fortifies.
The last passage somewhat follows suit, but the meeting is by happenstance, and instead of a security feed, Gam-hee watches the crashing waves film at a small, multi-purpose arthouse. Hong populates this film with similar shots of nature, whose beauty feels self-conscious for such an off-the-cuff director; but there’s a country/city dichotomy at work, with Gam-hee traveling from Seoul to visit these old friends of hers, who live in suburban cul-de-sacs and low-rise apartments streaked through with gray, anonymous asphalt. After running separately into her ex and his wife, who own the theater, Gam-hee turns back into the film instead of leaving as she’d planned. It’s as if the waves impart a feeling of respite, and that there’s some unremarked upon turbulence in her own life that’ll only be sussed out if she’s on the other end of the preceding rendezvous. The Woman Who Ran is a film of fitful politesse, where potentially discomfiting topics only arise to the surface when they’re coaxed by some external, disruptive element. At one point in Hong’s filmography, such upheaval could be attributed to the omnipresent soju, but these sober interactions are even more unsettling in a film otherwise so placid, as the simmering interlopers operate with an integrity of influence, or lack thereof, flaunting an unwelcome authority that was easier to write off in booze-soaked atmospheres. Perhaps Gam-hee deserves the same, a friendly witness to internal and external conflict (still yet to be mentioned are issues of memory loss and divorce), but as is the case with Hong, that’ll most likely present in an upcoming film.