Slowly, we’re catching up with the Korean New Wave’s answer to the love child Antonioni and Hou Hsiao-hsien never had: If Hong Sang-soo’s elusive masterpiece The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) is still cinema non grata on these shores, his grim structuralist follow-up Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) is properly DVD’d here, and his fifth film, Woman Is the Future of Man (2004), now catches legit screen time. Hong may experiment with story flow and import, but he’s nothing if not focused on Korean twentysomethings and their untethered life path of power-boozing, disconnection, and romantic failure. For Hong’s lost generation, the past never adds up to the present, and modernity is merely a fabric of unsatisfying lies.
More often than not, the men are treacherous louts—”You’re all animals,” Sun-hwa (Sung Hyun-ah), the inevitable vertex of the new film’s triangulated anti-ménage, morosely says at one point. And yet the men’s self-immolating behavior is what’s saddest in the Hong universe, thanks largely to his duplicitous manner with narrative—you can rarely grip the shape of the entire film until past the halfway marker. When you do, the tragedy of soured lives is beyond the point of no return.
In Woman, we first meet two grown school buddies as they reunite for drinks after several years; Mun-ho (Yoo Ji-tae) is a married suburbanite with a huge mortgage, while Hun-joon (Kim Tae-woo) is returning from years at a U.S. film school. In the first of the film’s patient set pieces, Hong sits the men in a noodle shop booth for almost six solid minutes, engaged in a conversation simmering with resentment and hostility. Hong then leaps backward to Sun-hwa, who is gently left behind by Hun-joon after another old boyfriend rapes her off-screen. We leap ahead again to the restaurant booth, and back again (Mun-ho pursues Sun-hwa in his friend’s long absence), until the two drunken semi-friends, somewhat reluctantly, decide to visit their old girlfriend, each harboring their own secrets and each obliviously at a loss as to what Sun-hwa might want from them years after the fact.
We’re accustomed to an omniscient understanding of what movie characters, particularly in dramas about love and loss, are thinking, but Hong distributes information with a saline drip. Often, of course, his two lonely fools don’t quite know what they’re thinking, either—Woman can sometimes come off like an introverted Carnal Knowledge with two Jack Nicholsons. Hong’s film cuts from one flashback happy, flirty meeting between Mun-ho and Sun-hwa to a follow-up sex scene in which they can barely tolerate each other, show-jumping over months or even years and illustrating with a thwack the melancholy dissolution of sexual ardor.
The mode is icily observational (there are no close-ups), and Hong doesn’t expend very much sympathy on his characters—not even Sun-hwa, now a cocktail waitress comfortable with being used. But it’s a heartbreaking movie nonetheless—after they both sleep at her apartment and awake purporting to remember little, their paths diverge, and we follow Mun-ho deeper into his perpetual night of discontent, looking for love in all the wrong places, standing in the snow. The film’s title, lifted from Surrealist-Communist poet Louis Aragon, may or may not be deeply ironic, but there’s little doubt that the future is far off.