It’s a pretty bombastic title, but Hong Sang-soo’s slender, 66-minute-long “Hill of Freedom” is nothing if not unassuming. Careful not to trespass on our time or goodwill even a second longer than it should, the film is a modest return to Hong’s prevailing themes of love, both requited and unrequited, and the fragility of communication between cultures and sexes. It feels a little like a sampler for a larger project, not that anything is left undeveloped, and like so many of his films is made with a kind of creakiness, in acting style, aesthetics and dialogue, that some may find irritatingly distracting. But for our part, we enjoyed the film’s naiveté, which seems unforced and genuine, and its occasionally witty insights into language and cultural barriers, and the stuff that gets lost in translation when we try to surmount these obstacles.
The set up is so cute that were it not so matter-of-factly presented it could easily tip over into preciousness. A young Korean woman, Kwon (Seo Younghwa) returns from a trip to discover a packet of letters that has been left for her at her workplace by her old flame, Mori (Kase Ryo), a young Japanese man fell for her hard a couple of years previously, but then returned to Japan. The letters are essentially diary entries of his return to Seoul to find her, but Kwon slips on the stairs and they spill out across the floor, confusing their order. As they’re undated, Kwon goes to sit in a café (the titular “Hill of Freedom” is not a battle site or a picturesque landmark, but a little café run by friendly, pretty dog owner Youngsun) and reads them in random order. And that’s the order in which we see the scenes unfold—jumping back and forth in time, we piece together the story of Mori’s weeks waiting and searching for Kwon. The delicate way he becomes insinuated in the life of Youngsun, the café owner, for example, plays out so that we see their romantic encounter occur before we see them in their getting-to-know-you phase.
Mori finds Youngsun’s lost dog; he goes drinking a couple of times with a boisterous neighbor from his boarding house; he takes umbrage at Younsun’s boyfriend’s mild insults; he leaves notes on Kwon’s door but wonders in his letters if she’ll ever receive them, and where she is, and whether he’ll ever get to tell her that she is “the best person I’ve ever met.” Most interestingly, however, most of this plays out in a kind of broken English which is the only shared language between the Japanese Mori and the Korean Kwon, as well as the other Koreans among whom he finds himself stranded during this self-imposed limbo period. From experience, we can say that Hong’s ear for the peculiar rhythm of English as spoken by Asian people as a second language is excellent, and the way these slightly fractured conversations see-saw between the polite and banal, and the personal and even philosophical, feels pinpoint accurate.
Beyond the hopscotchy structure, the gentle culture clash comedy and the pleasant task of un-jumbling the fragments in your mind, there really is not a lot else here. The shooting style ranges from indifferent to downright ugly, and the repeated cuts back to Kwon reading the letters, turning to a new page to signal a new chapter in the story, soon start to clang a bit. These are somewhat sophomoric issues, indeed the film would not be out of place on a film student’s show reel and we can’t help but be surprised that Hong, 20 credits after making a splash (sorry) with “The Day The Pig Fell Into The Well,” should seems so uninterested in composition or cinematography here. And after the relative narrative complexity of his last features, “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” and “In Another Country,” this small quickie feature can’t help but feel like at best a palette cleanser.
Still, it may amount to less than a hill of beans, but “Hill of Freedom” is an amiable way to spend 66 minutes learning how even cultures that seem closely related to Western eyes, like those of Japan and Korea, can clash. And also how cultures like these, that seem so far from our own, can be trumped, by love, longing, friendship, sex and drunkenness, the same universal experiences we all share. [B-]