After debuting at Cannes last year, celebrated Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo’s In Front of Your Face arrives on UK screens. A typically minimalist outing, director Hong’s film is a devastating drama whose affect creeps up on the audience so quietly that it is barely noticeable until after the final blow has landed.
Returning after a year-long stay in the US, former actor Sangok (Lee Hye-yeong) visits her younger sister, Jeongok (Yunhee Cho) in Seoul. The opening view from Jeongok’s apartment as her sister watches her sleep is of nondescript tower blocks rise from flat concrete tens of stories below, confusing the clinical utility of a hospital with the warmth of the domestic. Jeongok’s room is neat, clean and white and there’s an air of concern as Sangok sits by her sister. The strangeness of a woman watching another adult sleep suggests both intimacy and, perhaps, crisis – heightened by Hong’s rich, melancholy musical arrangement on strings.
Where Jeongok is the model of enthusiasm and energy, the older Sangok projects calm to the point of inertia. Her defining quality is stillness – so much so that at times the film itself appears to have stopped. Sangok captures the frame, the camera remains fixed on her to the exclusion of other characters: observe how a single shot in taxi stays with her as she talks to the driver, whom we never see.
The impression, partly, is of a person in post-crisis, like someone sitting in shocked calm after a great catastrophe has just rolled over them. But her evident prepossession and the repetition of her mantra that everything before is grace suggest a degree of reflection that only comes after a profound shock. Hong reserves the nature of that shock for a lunch with film director Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo) in the film’s final third. It’s a quiet, lengthy sequence, yet it lands like a seismic wave, reverberating backwards through the rest of the film.
Sangok’s revelation is, of course, obvious from the start, yet we can contrast her acceptance of the truth with an unconscious denial on the part of the viewer, an unwillingness to look at what is clearly right there. So much of In Front of Your Face’s power comes from its quotidian rhythms, the way that Sangok, Jeongok, and later Jaewon move through space and conversation not with the predetermined purpose of narrative, but the flow of emotions both concealed and revealed, awkward banalities.
There is deep understanding between characters whose history is suggested but rarely stated. Indeed, at times the film as almost evaporates as a constructed narrative: director Hong instead allowing his characters to find their way through to a conclusion that resists ‘ending’ in favour of closure, while obscuring the past and future beyond the film’s timeframe focuses our attention on the present. The result is a captivating film of deep emotional power; like weeds slowly cracking the pavement above, its movements in isolation are barely felt but its effects are profound.