The sentimental music and narration that open “Hill of Freedom” – which could be interpreted as South Korean master Hong Sang-soo’s mischievous homage to ’90s American indies — is a syrupy red herring: The movie that flows from it SHOULD be lovesick and unbearable. Instead, Hong gives us a soulful, subtly acerbic, tongue-in-cheek critique of narrative coherence.
The setting is present day Seoul, where a seemingly impassive young woman named Kwon (Seo Younghwa) receives a batch of letters from Mori (Kase Ryo), a young man from Japan whom she met on one of his previous trips. She’s surprised: He has returned to Japan to win her heart, has already been in the country for two weeks, writing her daily and getting no answers. Because she hasn’t gotten the letters.
It’s a little early in these proceedings for a spoiler alert, but part of the effect and fun of “Hill of Freedom” involves the gradual process of figuring out what Hong is doing (some people will figure it out faster than others). In an early sequence, Mori meets up with Youngsun (Moon Sori), the beautiful young owner of the Hill of Freedom café where much of the action takes place, and she invites him out to dinner. She wants to thank him for saving her dog. What dog? When they sit and eat, Mori tells her that her boyfriend is “very insolent.” What boyfriend? The viewer does meet the boyfriend, and the dog, too, but not till a sequence or two later.
If this were 1993 – an era evoked by the leisurely conversations, static shots and slacker-ish attitude Hong shows toward cinematic forward momentum – one might assume the reels were out of order. Which is not precisely what has happened, but close: When Kwon got the letters, she fainted, dropped the pages, picked them up out of order, and the narrative proceeds accordingly.
At one point, Youngsun asks Mori what he’s reading. It’s a novel called “Time.” Hong is making it too easy.
The upshot, however, is that “Hill of Freedom” keeps one rapt, not by the non-flow of the story, but by the power of personalities and the interrelationships of the characters surrounding Mori, as he pines for the absent Kwon, and becomes increasingly involved with the available Youngsun.
There are characters at the tatami-room inn where Mori stays, and with whom he forms fast and seemingly intimate friendships; a slightly older man (Eui-sung Kim), who is deeply in debt and hence living alongside Mori at his aunt’s rooming house, befriends Mori, tells him he looks like an artist – several people are accused of looking like artists in this film – and compliments his mustache. His neediness would be off-putting to some, but not to Mori, who seems to win over everyone and is open to everything, including too much alcohol, which in this movie means hangovers that proceed the corresponding binges.
Part of the secret to smiling communication, Hong implies, is that everyone speaks English, which requires more ingratiating effort on the part of the speaker, and relieves the conversation of troublesome nuance.
There are good titles, bad titles, and titles that indicate someone is just trying to yank your chain — which seems, at first, to be the case with “Hill of Freedom,” which is about neither hills nor freedom, unless one counts freedom from continuity. But it’s a good title, actually, because the whole movie is out to throw a monkey wrench into your toolbox of moviegoing expectations — and does so with a quiet crash.
“Hill of Freedom” screened this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.