Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. Cinema Guild releases the film in select theaters on Friday, January 21.
One of the most amusing things about Hong Sang-soo’s “Introduction” is the thought that this half-cocked 66-minute bauble of a film might be someone’s first encounter with the singular Korean auteur. There are a few genuinely (or at least relatively) accessible points of entry to his extensive body of work — the playful conceit of “Right Now, Wrong Then” offers a semi-recent example, while the more straightforward likes of “Woman Is the Future of Man” and “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” are flush with enough sexual tension to seduce even the most casual newcomers into the fold — but this isn’t one of them.
Slight and discursive even by the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic standards, “Introduction” refuses to auto-correct for anyone who doesn’t already speak conversational Hong. Which isn’t to suggest the uninitiated will find any of it particularly hard to follow, only that the movie could well be over before they recognize how its mundane detours have thawed into destinations of their own. Mileage varies when it comes to mapping the border between “Minor Hong” and “Major Hong,” but some of his films — simply by virtue of his generative process — tend to feel like glorified DLC for the previous efforts. Some of his films are less compelling for the stories they tell than they are for the dimensions they add to the ones he’s already made. This is one of those.
“Introduction” is essentially the story of three hugs, one for each of the film’s three chapters. That may not sound like enough of a foundation to support a feature, but Hong veterans know how seismic any sort of physical contact tends to be in his inebriated postmodern chat-fests (each new example of which seems more spartan than the last, and increasingly preoccupied with the iterative echoes between them all).
The first of those chapters concerns a handsome twentysomething named Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho) who asks his girlfriend Ju-won (Park Mi-so) to wait in a nearby cafe while he drops in on his doctor father (Kim Young-ho). But the dad is too busy fretting over a famous theater director (frequent Hong proxy Ki Joo-bong) to bother with a visit from his son, and eventually becomes so overexcited — or drained of energy — that he falls asleep in his office while his star patient lies full of acupuncture needles on the table next door. Hong rookies might fail to clock this utter non-event as the potential cornerstone of a movie that’s built around the collision between dreams and reality, pantomime and sincerity, planning and impulsiveness, but his fans know to scour every scene for such recurring motifs — the errant pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that will prove beguiling for its missing tiles. The hug that ends this episode comes from an unexpected place, but reeks of the logorrheic desperation that leads even the most innocuous Hong characters to bare their souls at the drop of a hat or the fall of some snow.
Ju-won takes center stage in the film’s Berlin-set middle chapter, likely shot on the fly when Hong was in town for last year’s festival; the guy doesn’t seem to believe in vacations, and it’s a large part of his charm that he rolls camera with the breezy ritualism of someone getting their daily steps. To that point, Ju-won’s semester abroad stands out for her encounter with an artist played by Hong’s romantic partner and long-time muse Kim Min-hee, who jolts some life into an airless scene when she muses that “painting every day keeps me healthy” in a way that sounds like the film’s best attempt at self-justification.
Shooting in the low-contrast digital black-and-white that he’s come to favor over the last few years, the reliably DIY director also serves as his own cinematographer here, as if needing to put even more of himself into each film in order to stave off his “sickness,” whatever that might be. “Introduction” is too unfussy to suffer for (or even betray) Hong’s relative amateurishness, but the flat lighting of the interior scenes lands with a garishness that makes you eager for everyone to go back outside.
On the other hand — and in the spirit of generosity with which Hong keeps churning out his work — Hong’s “play it as it lays” aesthetic helps accentuate the moments when his characters erupt with intense feelings and jut out from their everyday backdrops like the drawings of the world’s least kid-friendly pop-up book. That jack-in-the-box energy is especially pronounced in “Introduction,” as Young-ho, Ju-won, and a handful of others try to reconcile personal impulsiveness with romantic co-dependence in a way that doesn’t seem fated to end well for anyone.
But Hong isn’t a goal-oriented kind of guy. He finds satisfaction in the process, however bad the hangover might be the day after. The filmmaker’s devotees will feel a prescient kind of Pavlovian flinch when the theater star, the doctor, Young-ho, and his friend sit down for lunch at a seaside restaurant in the third chapter, and one of them cautions his companions not to get drunk on soju. It’s the Hong equivalent of someone in a horror movie yelling “don’t get killed by the monster!” when their friend goes to check on a creepy noise in the basement.
Drunkenness most definitely ensues, as does a belligerent monologue about the difference (or lack thereof) between embracing a woman onstage, and embracing a woman in real life: “Whether sincere or playing around, it’s all love! However small, there’s nothing but good! It’s so precious! So beautiful! How can that be wrong?” It’s the most arresting moment of a film that comes alive when you can hear its director talking to himself. Hong may not make documentaries, but artistic creation is a part of his life, and not separate from it. A hug is always a hug, whether it’s a nice introduction, a heartsick goodbye, or just a way of keeping someone warm.
“Introduction” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Berlinale. Cinema Guild will release it in the United States.