Credit: Jeonwonsa Film Co.
by Ryan Swen Featured Film Spotlight

in water — Hong Sang-soo

December 1, 2023

As the star of Hong Sang-soo has improbably grown, the traditional (and often erroneous) stereotypes lobbed against his films have stayed stuck in the mud. None of these are fair, strictly speaking, impressions largely drawn from loglines and ignoring the often wild differentiations that arise between his films, especially those in this current period inaugurated sometime around 2018. in water [sic], which unusually (but fittingly) premiered in the Berlinale Encounters section rather than in his customary Competition slot, provides a stellar example of how deceptively flexible his approach has become, even as his recent concerns about inspiration and creation of art remain constant.

At only 61 minutes, in water is Hong’s shortest feature yet, and like his other mid-length film from just two years prior, 2021’s Introduction (in the Berlinale competition), it stars Shin Seok-ho — the fresh-faced youth who has risen to provide a compelling contrast to past Hongian men — as Seoung-mo, an actor who seeks to direct a short film for the first time. In order to do so, he travels to the rocks of Jeju Island with his friends — Nam-hee, an actress (Kim Seung-yun), and Sang-guk, a former filmmaker (Ha Seong-guk) — in tow. Without a script, they intend to spend a week at a rented house, all paid for by Seoung-mo, as he searches for script material on the beach and in the alleys. Even more than in other recent Hong films, in water’s presentation is deceptively spare, with much of the on-screen conversation springing forth from two people getting to know each other while the would-be director sits pensively, pondering the surroundings.

And even more so than in The Novelist’s Film, in water explicitly takes Hong’s way of artmaking as its raison d’être; he mentioned that he shot the film in a week himself, and his increasing shouldering of almost all production responsibilities mirrors the skeleton crew on display here. So, it’s fascinating to see how, if not his mindset, then how his process is imparted onto someone on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of life and experience; while Hong has worked at an unceasing pace, Seoung-mo describes himself as scared, only now finally breaking out of acting to pursue his own inspiration. This perspective does not feel like an imposition: unlike Introduction, there is no adult balance to counterbalance the faces of youth, but only the continually adrift director, reflective beyond his years, carving out a world-weary niche all the same.

Getting deep into a review of in water without mentioning the film’s greatest gambit, shooting most of the film (every exterior and a majority of the interiors) out of focus, might seem foolish, but it does not (and should not) capture everything that distinguishes this film. But it is constantly beautiful, and purposefully inconsistent in the degree to which the shots are out of focus, a slight change in gradation that becomes especially noticeable as the characters are placed or move closer or further away from the camera. There are certain “pay-offs,” but the blur remains principally compelling in its reflection of Hong’s own recent eye troubles, which have overlapped with his decision to lens all his films himself. It serves as a constant reminder of his presence, yet one that does not detract from the film in the slightest. Instead, it further essentializes the nigh archetypal nature of his three young people. At their core, specific characterization matters little in the face of what Hong is interested in exploring, and the depth of feeling, arising from questions relating to a belief in that which exists both within and apart of one’s perception, is conveyed as masterfully as ever.

DIRECTOR: Hong sang-soo;  CAST: Shin Seok-ho, Ha Seung-guk, Kim Min-hee, Kim Seung-yoon;  DISTRIBUTOR: The Cinema Guild;  IN THEATERS: December 1;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 1 min.

Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.5.