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The cinema of Korean director Hong Sang-soo is seductively low-key and lo-fi, and his latest is a movie-novella in three encounters. It’s so downbeat, so matter-of-fact, that the registers and nuances are almost beneath the radar of what generally constitutes filmic effect. This really is just people talking, and though they sometimes raise their voices, get angry, embarrassed, or upset, a keynote of polite calm soon reasserts itself. Hong’s camera sedately records each exchange from an undramatic distance, sometimes zooming in for something closer midway through the conversation, but not for any pointed reason. Watching this film means recalibrating your expectations so you can gauge the subtleties and absorb the sotto voce implications about relationships and sexual politics. Pretty much all the way through, nothing very sensational seems to be happening. And yet the movie’s sensational meaning is hiding in plain sight: in the title.
Gam-hee is a young woman in Seoul who is a florist by trade, though no great importance is attached to that. She is played by Kim Min-hee, the director’s partner and longtime collaborator, who has acted in seven of his last eight films – but is probably best-known for starring in Park Chan-wook’s 2016 film The Handmaiden, based on Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith. Gam-hee has been married for five years, during which time, we learn, she has never been apart from her husband for even a single day. She is at some pains to tell people that she has been fine with this. She says things like: “We manage to have good moments every day”; and “I feel a little love every day and that’s enough.” But now her husband has gone off on a business trip so she is going around visiting some old friends, which evidently hadn’t been possible before.
Gam-hee encounters three women in three sections. Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa) is a gentle, sweet-natured and slightly dowdy woman who is now divorced and lives in the countryside outside Seoul raising chickens: the woman next door, to whom the title may or may not allude, has run away, leaving a distraught daughter roaming disturbingly around like a ghost. Next is Su-young (Song Seon-mi), a pilates instructor in the city: she has a crush on a neighbour, but is also being stalked by a young poet, with whom she had a rash one-night-stand. Thirdly, there is Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), who is imagined to be the manager of Seoul’s (real-life) Emu cinema and arts centre. She is a slightly spiky character.
The first two encounters are planned but this third meeting, in the cinema’s cafe, is very much accidental: Gam-hee tells Woo-jin that she is here to see a film, but this is clearly a fib. In each case, the female conversation is interrupted, or disrupted, by a man. Young-soon’s neighbour pompously asks her to stop feeding stray cats because his wife has a fear of cats and so can’t leave their apartment. But could this woman’s agoraphobia be connected with her overbearing husband, not the cats? Su-young’s former lover rings on the doorbell and harangues her while she’s trying to tell Gam-hee all about her agreeable flirtation with an older, distinguished man. And after talking to Woo-jin at the arts centre cafe, Gam-hee has a very tense but revealing conversation with a famous novelist and TV personality who is there to give a sold-out reading: Gam-hee was dating this man before she got married.
When Gam-hee finally meets her old lover, she can’t help giving him a shrill piece of advice: when he’s on TV, which is a lot, he talks too much. Gam-hee is irritated by his volubility, a symptom of her dismay at his public visibility; he keeps on popping up, gabbling away, while she is trying to concentrate on her new life with her husband. And yet there is every sign that this former relationship with a not-yet-celebrity was no better than the new one.
Hong just places these three situations in front of us: muddled, messy, happy-sad. “None of them seems like a crisis, and neither does Gam-hee’s own life. But she might want to run, all the same.
• The Woman Who Ran is released on 20 December on Mubi.
Source: The Guardian
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