The films of Hong Sang-soo, ever so magical yet construed from the affairs of quotidian encounters, every minimal gesture compounding a maximal observation, have over the past two decades established through their associative textures a cinematic canon of sorts; a canon whose shared DNA translates, transmutes, and transcribes between iterations its theses and truths on human existence, equally specific to its social backdrop of contemporary Korea as it speaks to the insights of the wider world. Frequently accused by detractors (as he is admired by defenders) of making the same film over and over, Hong invests in his narrative fiction a slight hand of the metafictional, dovetailing the realism of his constructed scenarios with the teleological properties of fiction qua fiction — to illuminate, but not preach, the many wisdoms that fiction, poised at an advantageous distance, might proffer us.
Following his Best Screenplay win at the 2021 Berlinale for his reverie-like Introduction (a sketching of reverie, to be precise; its formal ellipses and incompleteness exemplify the helpful perspective of treating his works, to varying extents, as creative exercises), the prolific director returns to Cannes, where he was last seen in 2017 with The Day After, bearing nothing less than a spiritual awakening with In Front of Your Face, a title of unusual abrasiveness — literally, in-yer-face! — whose prepositional syntax reveals and preempts its structural absence. For it is not a concrete entity or idea that preoccupies middle-aged woman Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young) throughout the film’s succinct runtime, but an invisible voice, obsession, construct; intangible yet always intimidating, this absence bores a hole in her, consigning her to imperturbable silence, a façade of calm belying maelstroms of anguish.
Sang-ok wakes up on a couch in her sister Jeong-ok’s (Cho Yun-hee)’s apartment; her sister sleeps on a bed adjacent, unconscious of the living world. Later on a walk she tells Sang-ok of a dream she had, a good one, which she cannot yet divulge. “You can’t talk about good dreams until noon. Or so they say,” Jeong-ok frustrates, specifically, our desire to perceive the imperceptible, to trace the lacunae so routinely projected with mountains of signification, present, positive, and presumptuous in their crusade towards certain truth. The older woman, meanwhile, allows us privileged access into her mind. “Everything I see before me is grace. There is no tomorrow. No yesterday, no tomorrow. But this moment right now is paradise.” These words, narrated over Hong’s omniscient survey of her body, externalize an internal being of the mind, soul-searching and seeking closure to some mysterious fissure.
Over breakfast, we peer into Sang-ok’s life and the hints of possible fissures sustained. But with Hong, little is laid bare and nothing quite skirts his enigmatic set-up: estranged a while back from the family, she left for America with some “guy she barely knew” to work at a travel agency in D.C., but subsequently settled down in Seattle to man a liquor store. A phobia of heights (the window in Jeong-ok’s apartment frightens her), a lack of savings (having subsisted on rent abroad), and an unexplained return to her homeland, ostensibly to meet a director interested in casting her for an upcoming film; her sister’s response, that she has “no idea how the other has lived”, is revealing in its broader implications, providing a jolt of reality counter to our triumphant delineation of a character we think we understand better than she herself does.
The rest of In Front of Your Face is composed of similar such interactions, minuscule and microcosmic, between characters and spaces. Stopping by her hometown of Itaewon before her meeting with the director, Jae-won (the familiar face of Hong regular Kwon Hae-hyo), Sang-ok visits her childhood home, now occupied by a young mother and her daughter. The courtyard they share a smoke in takes on an unearthly likeness, physically unimpeachable but in spirit a memento of things past and time elapsed; likewise, the little girl whom she tenderly embraces, whose innocence and potential for life she admires as inviolable yet painfully fragile, acquires a personal significance beyond the realm of rules and gestures that constitute social manners, defined instead against the recognition of other independent, a priori individuals.
The pivotal encounter between Sang-ok and Jae-won, lasting close to half the film’s runtime and spread, for the most part, over two extended shots, steers its metaphysical epiphanies closer to metafiction; a self-awareness on Hong’s part that sees his own casting of Lee (an actress and singer hugely popular in the 1990s) reflect his interrogations of art and its claims to beauty and truth. As the duo converse over copious amounts of alcohol, Sang-ok politely declines Jae-won’s propositions and reveals her reasons for doing so. There is a brief pause, a musical interlude or two, before the conversation continues: he suggests a compromise, to collaborate on a short film, admitting his reverence for her beauty ever since he, as a university freshman, saw her acting debut in the early 1990s, particularly “the moment you stared at the pigeons”. He longs to capture that beauty once more, an aestheticized beauty whose desire to romanticize the currency and banality of human existence brings to light the interplay of fiction and non-fiction, acting and non-acting; the same way Sang-ok relates an anecdote of her teenage years to him, a moment of transcendence during and in spite of a resolution to die, in which the faces of those around her “looked so beautiful” that it weaned her off her suicidal desire.
Both faces — the actress Sang-ok captured on celluloid, staring at pigeons; and the faces of humanity she beholds while preparing to depart from it — conjure a sense of relation, a shared understanding of one’s innate being, though they do so to considerably different ends. One relegates being to an eternal abstraction, preserved in its embalming of purity, whereas the other emphasizes its becoming, a state of potentiality and radical freedom. Of course, such dichotomies are only conjectures, for Hong, an undisputed master of them, would know better than to poison their immaterial possibilities with the false lull of certainties. “I felt in my heart what reality was,” confesses Sang-ok to her presumption of mortal realization. When the director phones the next day to apologize for reneging on his promises, thereby disputing this reality, she only laughs; a raucous laughter, not entirely bitter, not entirely derisory, of a woman condemned to the fate of certainty but curiously, because of her knowledge of it, a woman free. In Martin Buber’s terms, the I meets the Thou, and “one who truly meets the world goes out also to God.” Sang-ok’s religious beliefs aren’t clear, but her laughter proves indicative of a contemplation complete, the recognition of herself undertaken through a recognition of that elusive being, lying in wait before her. In Front of Your Face ends the next day, with a shot mirroring its opening of the two women in frame, one appraising the sleeping other. The sleeper’s dream is never revealed to us; and like dreams, mortality can only be comprehended when one faces it directly, and alone.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.