Home » “In front of your face”, Review: The Great Hong Sangsoo Reaches New Heights

“In front of your face”, Review: The Great Hong Sangsoo Reaches New Heights

by Stewart Cole

Even great directors sometimes rely on clichés to spread information quickly, and it is even more tempting for filmmakers whose work is unreserved and concentrated, such as South Korean director Hong Sang-soo. In a classic Hollywood movie, when the characters cough discreetly, they are sure to die of tuberculosis. In his new film “In Front of Your Face”, Hong uses this troparion in the very first scene. Its protagonist, Sangok (Lee Hye-young), a middle-aged former actress who has returned to her hometown of Seoul, after many years away, gently grabs her stomach in pain. Spoiler alert: she is seriously ill. Sangok’s return is terminal and every visit, excursion and meeting has the emotional and symbolic power of finality. The overwhelming mystery of life in the presence of death inspires Hong to new heights of imaginary inspiration and reveals even more clearly the essence of his art.

To match the action’s existential stakes, Hong increases the dramatic pressure with a race against time, squeezing almost all of the film’s action into a single morning and afternoon. Sangok’s first reunion is with Jongok’s sister (Cho Yunhi), from whom she has long been estranged. Sangok lives on Jeongok’s couch in a modern high-rise apartment, but the brothers know almost nothing about the other’s life. Jeongok even encourages her sister, who has lived in the United States for years, to buy an apartment nearby – meaning she has no idea Sangok is dying. The secret is filled with great intensity, as Jeongok leads Sangok on a leisurely walk and visits that, for the actress, are essentially screaming out of urgency. They visit Jeongok’s older son, Seungwon (Shin Seok-ho), at his rice shop, where he tastes some of his products. It is characteristic of Hong’s art that an infinitesimal detail – a small sauce stain on a Shangkok blouse – emerges as both a plot point and an important symbol, a cinematic metaphor that expands as the drama unfolds.

Sangok’s most important reunion is with the cinema itself. She has scheduled a lunch meeting with a younger director (and longtime admirer) named Song Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo), who wants to direct a film that would be her return to the screen. (Hong casting is also shocking: the cute and glamorous Lee, a star in the early ’90s, has made a few films in recent years.) Sangok’s journey to meet Jaewon leads her to the house where she grew up and her sister, summoning a strong impulse of memories imposed by a seemingly natural force.

Sangok’s meeting with Jaewon is the focus of the film, both dramatically and spiritually. In a tangle of dialogue lasting more than half an hour, set in and around an otherwise empty cafe, Sangok confronts and defies mortality through her artistic mission and creative passion. In the time she has left, she wants to embody a final version of herself in art – but she also wants to enjoy life. Here, Hong offers a bitterly ironic view of the film world, almost an Eastwood ethical work in which the greatest danger to art for an artist is demagogy — the use of fame for personal gain rather than self-interest. the work itself.

With “In Front of Your Face”, Hong is glorified in the work itself – in the power of cinema. Amidst the overwhelming intimacy of his conflicting, conversational drama, he offers several notable cinematic twists to gain access to the vast inner dimensions of Shanghai’s local adventures and encounters, including moments that oscillate between fantasy and reality. Uses the simplest of the subjective devices, the internal monologue, for a sharp result. Sangok’s inner reflections are jewels of metaphysical fervor, prayers minus religion and God, and in close discussion with Jaewon she gives a fuller voice to her spiritual quest, which is also aesthetic: she tries to avoid thoughts of the past and the future about to stay focused on the present. She wants to see what is in front of her, as she says, because that is where paradise is hidden.

Such a need to see is at the core of Hong’s own artistic practice. The productive director’s work since 2009 has yielded nineteen independent low-budget features and all feature a distinctive, original and unified style that provides a rigorous framework for strong emotions and intricately developed ideas: large dialogue scenes in extended shots, with few moves and analyzes with zoom in and out. His method contains a kind of programmed spontaneity, in which he composes scenes and dialogues day by day and offers them to his actors during filming. The most radical aspect of his work, however, is not found in these practices and style figures. It’s what they reveal: his understanding of the essence of talking images and the characteristic aesthetic power of a dialogue-rich film.

When silent films gave way to talking images, the art of cinema achieved the perspective of neutrality, albeit a kind of armed and tense neutrality. Letting the dialogue carry a lot of the weight of dramatic expression and limiting the image to an almost documentary recording that is nevertheless carefully written, the directors turned small frame fluctuations, looks, gestures, rhythms, settings and moods into powerful events. . With “In Front of You”, Hong finds new dimensions for his long-term recognitions: the great impact of subtle variations and obsessive repetitions, the paradox of narrative ambiguities and imaginative fantasies arising from scenes of backup and scholasticism. emerging from commonplace observations. By making his own film, Hong brings to life tiny details – such as the food stain on Sangok’s blouse – with an intense art of restrained finesse.

Many of Hong’s films are in black and white. even those that are colored are not at all memorable. But “In Front of Your Face” uses its color with audacity and splashes, from Sangok’s red nightgown and Jeongok’s Lego-like apartment palette to, above all, the dominant surfaces of bright and deep green in the foliage that seems to follow. Sangok everywhere, whether in public parks or private gardens or panoramic landscapes — or even indoors. In the rich display of prosperous life, the green seems to reflect its fate and refine its immediate experience. She transforms her vision into a cosmic unity with nature. (Hong’s attention to color reaches another ironic end to the alluring, exotic turquoise of a hermetically sealed gate that blocks the view.) the ecstasy of vision. Here, more than ever, Hong’s cinema is also revealed as a philosophy – its method is not a means but an end in itself, embracing the history of art and preserving its future in the eternal present tense of creation.

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