The 60-year-old South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo is one of the most tirelessly productive filmmakers working today. He's made more than two dozen films over the past couple of decades, sometimes churning out one or even two a year. The consistency and quality of his work have earned him a significant following at film festivals and among arthouse audiences, who've come to love his wry and melancholy movies: slender, low-budget dramedies that are often focused on the fractious dynamics between women and men.
His stories are usually built around a few recurring elements: romantic entanglements, personal anxieties, ordinary conversations that gradually turn uncomfortable and revealing — especially if there's drinking involved. For this reason, Hong has often been wrongly accused of making the same movie over and over again, with only slight variations in story and structure. It's not that Hong repeats himself; it's more that he's fascinated by repetition as a fact of life, the way people often find both comfort and dissatisfaction in routine.
He explores that tendency to sublime effect in The Woman Who Ran, his latest movie to hit theaters. If you're unfamiliar with Hong's work, this is as good a place to start as any. The title is a bit of a riddle — there are several women in the story, and we never see any of them running. The main character is a mild-mannered woman from Seoul named Gamhee, who's played by the terrific actress Kim Min-hee, Hong's frequent collaborator and off-screen partner.
In the movie, Gamhee pays three different visits to three different women whom she hasn't seen in quite some time. In the first story, she goes to stay with an old friend who recently got divorced and now lives with a roommate outside Seoul. In the second, Gamhee drops in on another old friend who works as a pilates instructor and is having romantic troubles: She has a crush on one neighbor and is being pestered by another.
The third story takes place at a cafe in Seoul, and it's more tense than the other two, as Gamhee has a reunion with a woman she fell out with years ago. Hong doesn't push this scene toward a heated confrontation. Instead he lets his characters tiptoe their way through an emotional minefield, clinging to a veneer of politeness that only makes the whole situation more awkward.
Hong is a terrific observer. Rather than cutting back and forth between his actors, he lets their conversation play out in a single take, with little camera movement except the occasional zoom. He gets remarkably naturalistic performances, with all the hesitations and evasions of normal speech. You feel as if you're there in the same room as these characters.
Each chapter of The Woman Who Ran is funny, moving and absorbing on its own, but the film is even more intriguing to think about afterward as you puzzle over how those chapters fit together. In each story, Gamhee and her friend share a meal — and one of the rare pleasures of Hong's movies is that they show us people actually taking the time to eat and enjoy their food. Also in each story, an uninvited man shows up midway through and triggers a mildly unpleasant interaction. At one point, the divorced friend and her roommate get in a cringingly polite argument with their male neighbor who wants them to stop feeding the stray cats that sometimes enter their yard. It's my favorite scene in the movie, a small masterpiece of passive-aggressive debate, capped by the best feline reaction shot I've seen in ages.
Hong usually divides his attention equally between women and men, and he's often been a sharp, self-implicating critic of Korean male misbehavior. Here, the focus is on the women. Gamhee of course gets the most screen time, but she's also reluctant to reveal much about herself. We know that she has a husband she claims to be inseparable from — a statement that rings a little more hollow every time she repeats it. If they're so inseparable, why don't we ever meet him?
Maybe Gamhee is the woman who's running after all, fleeing from a life of emptiness she can't bring herself to acknowledge and checking in on women from her past to see if they're any better off. Kim's lovely performance hints at this possibility without committing to it outright, and it's that ambiguity that gives this deceptively small-looking movie its lingering resonance. As Hong Sang-soo reminds us, few things are as inherently dramatic, or mysterious, as the stuff of everyday life.