Has It Started? / Is It Already Over?
Introduction (2021) and In Front of Your Face (2021) by Hong Sang-soo
Has It Started?
Is Introduction the best introduction to Hong San Soo’s oeuvre?
The film is short, dry, compact, looking for a breaking point in its storytelling: scenes reduced to a minimum, a refusal of any transition. It follows the young Young-ho, who navigates between a wintery Korea and a Berlin escapade, in often deserted alleys and neighbourhoods (an obligatory COVID reference). He has appointments to attend, often with his parents’ friends or his girlfriend’s acquaintances, but nothing ever goes as planned. The people he was supposed to meet fail to show up, stay away, or start lecturing him.
The destitute young man passes through this series of missed appointments without the film ever taking the trouble of weaving a bildungsroman. The scenes remain abruptly isolated from each other, sketching a harsh archipelago of failure which eludes everything. The character has no real control over events, but the filmmaker does not aim for mastery either. The black-and-white imagery refuses to play the seductive game of high contrasts and prefers to inhabit an aesthetic grey zone: an etching bleached after liquefaction.
In Introduction Hong Sang-soo pushes his aesthetic of indecision the furthest. In doing so, he delivers a film both sketchy and faded, indeterminate in its stakes, a work that refuses to know more than its characters. The filmmaker is in no position to mentor or lecture the younger generation.
Introduction is best read as a note. In a musical sense, it sets the tone for a future sequel – but which one? Or in a literary sense: a scribble on the margins of a work written in the margins of all usual production standards.
This discretion, this lack of visible effort, probably makes opening the exploration of Hong Sang-soo’s oeuvre with this film rather risky.
Yet as in so many of Hong Sang Soo’s films, Introduction ends with an epiphany on the beach. When Young-ho emerges from the icy sea, he finally experiences that mixture of relief and joy brightening his face, which has remained inscrutable for so long. At last, his head emerges out of the water. His baptism has taken place. Perhaps his life will be different from a series of fruitless confrontations in which he felt he was being messed with.
Maybe, but we’ll never know.
The moment Young-ho raises his head, the film comes to a screeching halt. Has Young-ho's life really begun? The film takes a total of 66 minutes to ask the question, and then simply leaves us with it, deliberately without answer.
Rather than an introduction, Introduction is a reset. The filmmaker’s “heroes” are often wimps, dulled by their feelings, often barely struggling to see through their own self-deception. Young-ho is a youthful variation on this model, frankly candid but unromantic. Since the mysteries are beyond his grasp, he cannot even pretend they are of his own making. In the face of these unhinged situations and the opacity of any decision-making, all he can do is present a psychological evanescence, relatively unseen among the filmmaker’s male characters.
Is It Over Already?
What if Introduction was just an introduction to In Front of Your Face?
A film about youth as a preamble to a film about middle age.
A film about a young man with no qualities as a preface to a film about a woman full of determination.
A film about a young man already lost in the life that stretches before him as a prelude to a film about a woman who wants to know where she finds herself in the final phases of her life.
Taken this way, the two films appear as horribly didactic, while both are gleefully engulfed by a similar mystery. They both run into the same conundrum: what is tomorrow made of? Demanding an answer at any cost is an illusion.
Sangok, the heroine of In Front of Your Face, is a woman in her fifties. After a career as an actress, she has just returned from a long stay in the United States. She is occupied with one task: cleaning up her past like one cleans up a room.
She reminisces with her sister, with a mixture of frivolity and barely concealed regret. She visits her childhood home and is moved by a little girl who could be a younger projection of herself. But now she meets a young man on the street – played by the same actor from Introduction – who gives her an uninhibited hug.
Then, in its final twist, the film engages in a performative break. A filmmaker who admires her offers her a new role, even though she hasn’t acted in a long time. She refuses! She has little time left to live and does not want to wait, submitting herself to cinema’s temporal regime. How much time will pass between a filmmaker’s first desire and the first shots? Two, three, six months? By then it will already be too late.
The injunction of the here-and-now is as much a driver of the drama as it is a manifesto. Of all contemporary filmmakers, Hong Sang-soo is the one who has profited most from digital technology to drastically reduce the cumbersome and fatal expectations of production delays. His recent period is also one in which space begins to contract: his obsessions and formal motifs easily fit into a café (Grass) or a hotel (Hotel by the River).
In the case of In Front of Your Face, however, this refusal to wait is not accompanied by any notion of transcendence, let alone dramatic overcharge. Sangok’s illness is never shown. Her decline never becomes perceptible. This minimalist dramaturgy goes hand in hand with directional sharpening. To proclaim is to show! When the heroine says there is nothing to do but live and watch, all the spectators must do is live and watch.
In fact, the final part of the film plays on the promiscuity of the spaces (café, backstreets) and the tenderness of the confessions to evoke an unusual vibration. Somewhere, it manages to recapture the grace of Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7: experiencing everyday life for the first and – perhaps – the last time. Sharing a drink and a meal, awkwardly playing a song on the guitar, bumping into each other on a narrow street. The tension of this last encounter is heightened by the waves of a prosaic romance, where two adults seem to revert into adolescence.
But what if it’s all just a game? Is it really a matter of disease or is it an artefact, indispensable to our access to the veracity of any feeling? The audience’s experience of doubt is part of the enjoyment. But Sangok replies that she no longer wants to act (as an actress) but just wants to live while she still can.
In Introduction, this claim itself was turned into a scene. In a restaurant, Young-ho met an actor in his forties who is rather full of himself. When Young-ho timidly asked him for advice on a hypothetical acting career, the incidental mentor told him he was far too young and had not lived long enough to portray any true emotions.
Against the injunction that “one must have lived to act justly” (Introduction), In Front of Your Face posits a “living without acting”.
Against the question, “Has my life already begun?” (Introduction), one finds a different fear: “Is this life already over?”
The two extremes constantly throw the ball back to each other. Like two mirrors placed opposite one another, the two films keep reflecting distortive resonances. It is Hong Sang-soo’s gift to raise a dizzying array of existential questions in between his films. But what we see in his films is a pure present, with ever-renewing colours, informing us that the essential is always in front of us: both for the life to come and the life right before our eyes.
Image (1) from Inteurodeoksyeon [Introduction] (Hong Sang-soo, 2021)
Image (2) from Dangsin-eolgul-apeseo [In Front of Your Face] (Hong Sang-soo, 2021)