At just over an hour in length, the compunction to describe Hong Sang-soo’s latest offering as slight would be understandable, but for those that have seen Hill of Freedom (Jayuui Eondeok, 2014) it’s also an accurate one-word review. Hong is known for his light, whimsical, and meandering narratives, but even in comparison to other such films this one feels especially fluffy. That is not to say that it is bad, however, as while the direction is fairly casual, there are a lot of laughs to be had during this gently awkward romantic quest of a Japanese teacher to seek out his lost love in Korea. That teacher is Mori (Ryô Kase) who arrives back in the country two years after a spell working at a foreign language institute.
Here, Mori met and fell head-over-heels in love with Kwon (Seo Young-hwa). It’s through a series of notes to Kwon that the audience is introduced to Mori’s current stay at a local guest house while completing his search. When she drops the undated papers, however, they are jumbled and she must read them in the order in which they fell, lending the presentation of the story a non-linear quality. Thus we see him out to dinner with Youngsun (Moon So-ri), who we know as the owner of the eponymous café but are perplexed when speaks about him saving her dog. Several scenes later, we have the blanks filled in for us and this happens through the film. Less of a story than an unordered series of comical encounters, Hong certainly gets one aspect of this minor work completely right and that’s its winning comic edge.
Kase is great as the awkward, non-Korean speaking, visitor – especially when he has one two many drinks and espouses the virtues of Kwon to some brand new friends. Moon is also likable as the barista who befriends and then falls for him. The performances are not exactly naturalistic, but the central relationship is shaped with tenderness and nuance and the other people – adorable dog included – that Mori encounters all enhance the overall humour of the piece. Shot in digital and replete with crash-zooms, the visual style is instantly recognisable to those that know Hong’s other work. Quite what the purpose behind the narrative structure is remains unclear, although it may be intended to represent the Mori’s general discombobulation when Kwon is nowhere to be found. Equally it may just be a cute nod to his assertions – thanks to a book he’s carrying everywhere – that time need not be linear. Whether it is or not seems to hold no deeper meaning for Hill of Freedom, which will almost certainly go down as a humorous but minor work from Hong Sang-soo.
This review of Hill of Freedom was originally published on 8 September 2014 as part of our Toronto International Film Festival coverage.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson