To some extent, Korean director Hong Sang-soo remakes the same movie each time out, with slight variations in character and tone, which means you either roll with his style or reject it outright. In most cases, Hong’s movies contain minor plots involving a handful of neurotic characters, usually one of whom is a filmmaker; much of the exposition involves ample drinking and commiserating among romantic loners and old friends. Endless chatter drives everything. But within those constraints, Hong often strikes a nuanced tone pitched between philosophical intrigue and angst-riddled comedy, with some results more refined than others.
There are many variations on the Hong formula. In the past five years, he has completed eight features, including two that have premiered this year alone: Following the Berlin Film Festival entry “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon,” Hong has unveiled “Our Sunhi,” his most enjoyable work since “In Another Country” — at least for those who respond to the director’s restrained approach. Yet it’s also distinctly charming and funny, providing an ideal access point for those unacquainted with his other work.
Hong takes little time putting the basic pieces in place. Recent film school grad Sunhi (Jung Yumi) decides she wants to do post-graduate work in the U.S. before turning her attention to movies and asks her old professor Donghyun (Kim Sangjoong) for a recommendation. Later, she runs into Munsu (Lee Sunkyun), an ex-boyfriend who has made a movie based on their romance. Within short order, both Donghyun and Munsu dispense advice to Sunhi to explain how her lack of ambition clashes with her intellect, a point underscored when Sunhi reads her recommendation from her old teacher and discovers that it’s rather mixed.
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That moment provides the first inkling of the way the men in her life scrutinize the low key Sunhi as a means of feeling superior to her — and indulging in their attraction towards her. The situation is further complicated with the arrival of Jaehak (Jaeyoung Jung), Munsu’s friend, who eventually falls for Sunhi as well.
Behind her back, the three discuss her paradoxical nature, a clash of fierce individuality and introverted qualities that leaves them incapable of fully understanding her identity. Each man contains such clearly defined personalities that Sunhi herself starts to look like a product of their collective imagination, as they continually project expectations onto her. But she’s certainly a real person. Cinematically, Sunhi has a kinship with the likes of Greta Gerwig’s young woman adrift in Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha.” While mysterious, Sunhi also maintains an enjoyably unhinged presence who often veers from tears of frustration to expressions of affection over so many drinking sessions. Hong’s dialogue-based humor tends to emerge from a cyclical approach, which is especially evident here as Sunhi engages in several outings with each man and hears minor variations on the same advice.
As usual, Hong’s camera generally just sits there and lets the scenario organically unfold, but the actors are especially lively and the dialogue fits together with puzzle-like finesse. One noteworthy scene veers from comedy and drama and back to comedy when a chicken deliveryman emerges into the middle of an emotional exchange between two characters and diffuses the tensions. It’s a perfect demonstration of Hong’s ability to toy with opposing moods.
However, the movie’s key rhythmic device is a jukebox tune played at several moments that links them together and underlines the repetitive nature of Sunhi’s aimless world. Even as everyone around Sunhi has an agenda for her, she’s either too unmotivated or overwhelmed to choose one for herself. Hong underlines that point in the keenly orchestrated finale, when all three suitors wind up in the same place in search of Sunhi while she drops out of the picture. As usual with Hong, his subjects are stuck in a limbo of confusion that feels both strangely distant and, for the same reasons, true to life.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Though likely to play at other festivals in the fall and please Hong fans, “Our Sunhi” is — like most Hong films — not exactly commercially viable, though a small distributor like Strand or Cinema Guild might be able to invest in the movie’s niche appeal for a small theatrical release.