Credit: Cinema Guild
by Morris Yang Film

Best Films of 2021: The Woman Who Ran

January 8, 2022

#21. Hong Sang-soo‘s films generally fall somewhere between melodrama and farce, but to classify them as such is to no doubt essentialize them as what they are not — namely, works of bombastic emotional and thematic articulation. Instead, their modus operandi taps into life’s extensive banalities to distill moments of little transcendent wisdom, both revealing and coyly concealing elements of desire and discontent left unspoken under the rules of social decorum. Another oft-employed adjective to describe the Hongian oeuvre is “autobiographical,” immediately bringing to mind his more pronounced American counterpart Woody Allen. Yet this designation tends to mislead those with classical expectations of autobiography and authenticity; the director himself acknowledges the role his films have in “showing something of” himself, but also states, in no uncertain terms, that he’s “never meant to make a film that represents [his] life”.

The Woman Who Ran, his pre-pandemic return to the screen after a year-long hiatus (lengthy by his standards), maintains this preceding interpretation of Hong as a filmmaker of negative spaces and as a storyteller concerned with how the quotidian illuminates hidden depths to our private experiences. What appears to be a floating triptych later establishes itself as pivotal openings into the life of Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee), a married and ostensibly happy woman who reconnects with old acquaintances while her husband is away on a business trip. One’s a divorcee, another a Pilates coach, the third the owner of an arthouse theater and wife of a renowned author, and we strikingly find that their lives are, on the whole, structured without the necessary figures of men. Those that appear are peripheral, their backs facing us; merely associated with rivals, threats, and in one particularly priceless scene, as a neighborly annoyance.

Deceptively slight, as with most of Hong’s films, The Woman Who Ran probes further into the lives of women, and with greater sensitivity and narratorial economy (at just 77 minutes) than most directors hope to achieve through more elaborate setups. Its breeziness of form and function attests to an unwillingness for overstatement, but this same breeziness is calibrated with an air of unease all the same. A vacational respite from routine for Gam-hee is punctured with minor disturbances, their disequilibratory effects on the lives of her friends unconsciously being projected onto her. As the film’s cipher, Gam-hee has her history and happiness illuminated by that of those around her, and where Hong eschews the bacchanalian loquaciousness of soju here, the conversations don’t lose their intrigue by virtue of their variety. We’re not told who exactly the titular woman is, but it’s not hard to guess.