The first of two films from South Korean director Hong Sang-soo screened at this year’s London Film Festival and released on DVD this week, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013) provides an enlightening, if docile portrait of a country ill at ease with its current lot. Bidding a tearful farewell to her Canada-bound mother in the first act, Haewon (a patient lead performance from Jeong Eun-chae) must also face up to her fractious relationship with a married tutor in between bouts of severe fatigue. With a linear narrative that attempts to mimic the format of multiple diary entries, this is a touching, finely compacted drama.
Beginning with a chance encounter between our protagonist and British actress Jane Birkin, who remarks on Haewon’s resemblance to her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, the Seoul-residing student meets with her own mother (Kim Ja-ok) before she makes the permanent move overseas. Shaken by the whole ordeal but unwilling to let her emotions show, Haewon sinks deeper and deeper into herself, her dreams of one day becoming a film actress more distant now than ever before. Looking for an immediate sense of comfort and solace, Haewon attempts to reignite her affair with her professor ex-lover (Lee Sunkyun), who now seems content with married life. Will the student’s gloom ever be lifted?
Sensitively directed by Sang-soo, whose career is littered with delicate emotional dramas, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon may not quite measure up against his best past efforts, but regardless offers its audience a unique depiction of privileged middle-class life in Seoul’s affluent suburbs. Eun-chae is endlessly watchable as the daughter of the film’s title, a quiet and unassuming young thing for whom heartbreak is a seemingly regular occurrence. Chastised by her peers for her ‘special relationship’ with the group’s esteemed tutor, Haewon’s desire to be loved sees her making poor decisions on more than one occasion, but her naiveté proves disarming enough to dissuade judgemental thoughts.
For one reason or another, Sang-soo has yet to really make the same kind of mark upon English-language audiences as the likes of Park Chan-wook or even Bong Joon-ho (whose new film, Snowpiercer, has reputedly been cut to ribbons by The Weinstein Company over in the US). His previous film In Another Country – not yet released in any form here in the UK – also appears to be stuck in distribution limbo despite strong reviews, so its certainly heartening to see Nobody’s Daughter Haewon given the kind of attention that it, and its director’s body of work as a whole, unquestionably calls out for.
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