Hong Sang-soo may not be South Korea’s most revered director in the era of Bong Joon Ho, but no filmmaker from the region has been more consistent in his output, or more productive. It has become ritual to describe the similarities between Hong’s lo-fi character studies as he’s cranked out two dozen features with slight variations in plot and theme over 20 years, but the recurring summaries of a Hong enterprise — self-aware stories of neurotic characters who drink a lot and ramble about life — often underserve the sophistication behind them.
Where many filmmakers aim to stretch their stories across a broad canvas, Hong scribbles, but there’s plenty of depth lurking in the small, unassuming moments that contribute to a larger whole. “The Woman Who Ran” exemplifies the some of best aspects of Hong’s fast-and-loose approach, and why it can never be easily dismissed.
An episodic triptych starring regular collaborator and romantic partner Kim Minhee, the movie has a breezy, almost amateurish quality to its production that suggests another rush job from a filmmaker unwilling or unable to slow down. But the structure reveals its deeper layers with time, congealing into a perceptive and often charming bite-sized study of smart women contending with a series of annoying men.
The essence of “The Woman Who Ran” revolves around Gamhee (Kim), a young woman who visits a trio of old female acquaintances over the course of three days. Gamhee’s husband has left town on a business trip, and it’s the first time she’s been away from him in five years. By all indications, Gamhee’s happy in her marriage, though she’s never really been in a situation to assess it without him around. He’s told her that “People in love should always stick together,” and she repeats the assessment several times over to her friends, as if it’s settled into her brain like a mantra. As Gamhee travels from one encounter to the next, the movie finds her absorbing new ways of seeing the world on her own, regardless of whether she prefers companionship.
It also provides her with a wakeup call about the nature of the opposite sex. Maybe she got one of the good ones, but in each of Gamhee’s trips, her poignant interactions are interrupted by passive-aggressive (and sometimes just plain aggressive) interactions with guys that don’t belong there.
Visiting Youngsoon at her apartment, she witnesses a neighbor come by to complain about the stray cats that Youngsoon feeds (one of whom scores a hilarious scene-stealing cameo); the next day, she hangs with Suyoung (Song Seonmi), an older woman who sleeps with one man in her building and pursues another, having met both at the local bar. That drama comes to a head when she tells off a groveling suitor in her hallway, repeating her disinterest with such precision that it becomes a grand punchline.
Finally, after a tender reunion with estranged pal Woojin (Kim Saebyuk), it’s Gamhee herself who must contend with a man from her past, and the difficult baggage that seeing him brings until she decides to exit the scene. “The Woman Who Ran” doesn’t evaluate gender dynamics so much as the way its eponymous women wriggle themselves out of them, refusing to become a part of the toxicity thrust their way.
More than that, this endearing little movie plays like a paean to the joys of feminine self-care and private exploration. It shares some DNA with Hong’s “On the Beach at Night Alone,” which Hong made in the aftermath of the tabloid obsession over his extramarital affair with his muse, and starred Kim as a woman roaming around Europe discovering some hidden dimension to her needs. At the same time, the new movie marks one of the filmmaker’s most structurally precise work since the brilliant “Right Now, Wrong Then,” a retelling of the same story with slight variations, though in this case the outcome is more straightforward.
While Hong’s static long takes and occasional zooms sometimes feel sloppy or undercooked, his style is not so unlike the scrappy American independent films designated as “mumblecore” over a decade ago. (Hong himself might have been labeled “mumblecore” if he worked in America, and if his nimble approach didn’t predate that misleading term by several years.)
However, Hong’s style doesn’t indicate laziness so much as an economy of means. Subtle shifts in perspective throughout “The Women Who Ran” indicate the directorial vision behind the camera: a zoom from one conversation in a living room zeroes in on a nearby surveillance camera, where Hong captures a tender exchange that requires no dialogue to understand; later, he captures an apartment hallway conversation from one angle before cutting to Gamhee watching the reverse shot through the video monitor on an intercom. It’s a savvy means of exploring the limitations of ordinary communication, and the insight that an outsider’s POV can bring.
Such are the snippets of wisdom that even a minor-key Hong movie like this one can incite. It all comes to a head with a fascinating coda, as Gamhee completes her journeys and slips back into a movie theater she visited earlier that day. Hong seems to imply that just because you think you’ve seen this story before — or think you’ve got it all figured out — doesn’t mean it lacks additional wisdom to impart. That’s the essence of his filmmaking each time out.
“The Woman Who Ran” premiered at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival in Competition. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.