Even the greatest directors sometimes rely on the cliché to spread information quickly, and it is all the more tempting for filmmakers whose work is stripped down and condensed, like the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo. In a classic Hollywood film, when characters quietly cough, chances are they are dying of tuberculosis; in his new movie “In Front of Your Face,” Hong uses this trope in the very first scene. Its protagonist, Sangok (Lee Hye-young), a middle-aged former actress who has returned to her hometown of Seoul after many years away, gently clutches her stomach in pain. Spoiler alert: she is seriously ill. Sangok’s return is terminal, and each of his visits, excursions and encounters has the emotional and symbolic power of finality. The overwhelming mystery of life in the presence of death inspires Hong to new heights of imaginative inspiration and reveals the essence of his art all the more clearly.
To match the action’s existential stakes, Hong ups the dramatic pressure with a race against time, compressing nearly all of the film’s action into the space of a single morning and afternoon. Sangok’s first meeting is with her sister Jeongok (Cho Yunhee), from whom she has long been estranged. Sangok stays on Jeongok’s couch in a modern high-rise building, but the siblings know almost nothing about each other’s lives. Jeongok even encourages his sister, who has been living in the United States for years, to buy an apartment nearby, meaning she has no idea that Sangok is dying. The secrecy is very tense, as Jeongok leads Sangok on a leisurely round of rides and visits that, for the actress, practically screams urgency. They visit Jeongok’s adult son, Seungwon (Shin Seok-ho), at his rice cake shop, where she tastes some of his wares. It is characteristic of Hong’s art that an infinitesimal detail – a small stain of sauce on Sangok’s blouse – emerges as both a plot point and a major symbol, a cinematic metaphor that develops bigger implications as the drama progresses.
Sangok’s most important meeting is with cinema itself. She planned a lunch with a young director (and a longtime fan of hers) named Song Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo), who wants to direct a movie that would be her return to the screen. (Hong’s casting is also poignant: the graceful and radiant Lee, an early ’90s star, has made few films in recent years.) Sangok’s journey to meet Jaewon takes him near the house where she and his sister have grown up, summoning a great rush of memories that impose themselves with seemingly physical power.
Sangok’s encounter with Jaewon is central to the film, both dramatically and spiritually. In a web of dialogue that lasts over half an hour, set in and around an otherwise empty cafe, Sangok confronts and challenges mortality through his artistic calling and creative passion. In the time she has left, she wants to embody a final version of herself in art, but she also wants to enjoy life. Here, Hong offers a bitterly ironic take on the world of cinema, almost an Eastwood-esque morality piece in which the greatest danger art poses to an artist is demagoguery – the use of fame for personal gain rather than only in the interest of the work itself.
With “In Front of Your Face,” Hong glories in the work itself – in the power of cinema. In the intimacy of its confrontational and conversational drama, it offers several remarkable twists of cinematic form in order to access the vast inner dimensions of Sangok’s adventures and local encounters, including moments that oscillate ambiguously between fantasy and reality. He uses the simplest of subjective devices, the internal monologue, with a net effect. Sangok’s inner reflections are gems of metaphysical ardour, prayers minus religion and God, and in intimate discussion with Jaewon she gives more voice to her spiritual quest, which is also aesthetic: she strives to avoid thoughts of the past and future in order to stay focused on the present. She wants to see what’s in front of her face, as she puts it, because that’s where “heaven hides”.
Such a need to see is central to Hong’s artistic practice. The director’s prolific work since 2009 has produced nineteen low-budget independent feature films, and all display a distinctive, original and unified style that provides a tense framework for clearly expressed emotions and complex ideas: long scenes of dialogue realized in long takes, with little camera movement and analyzed by zooming in and out. His method involves a kind of planned spontaneity, in which he composes scenes and dialogues day after day and offers them to his actors as the filming progresses. The most radical aspect of his work, however, is not in these practices and figures of speech. It’s in what they reveal: his understanding of the essence of talking pictures and the distinctive aesthetic power of a dialogue-rich film.
When silent cinema gave way to talkies, the art of cinema reached the perspective of neutrality, albeit a kind of armed and tense neutrality. By letting the dialogue carry much of the weight of the dramatic expression and by restricting the image to a quasi-documentary recording that is nonetheless carefully composed, the directors have transformed minor fluctuations in framing, looks, gestures, rhythms, sets and moods into powerful events of thunderous emotional effect. With “In Front of Your Face”, Hong finds new dimensions for his long-standing recognitions: of the great impact of subtle variations and obsessive repetitions, of the paradox of narrative ambiguities and imaginative fantasies that arise from scenes of stripped down realism. and meticulous, great symbolism emerging from mundane observations. Hong, shooting his own photography, brings tiny details, like the food stain on Sangok’s blouse, to life with an intensified artistry of reserved refinement.
Many of Hong’s films are in black and white; even those in color are hardly memorable. But “In Front of Your Face” makes brash, splashy use of color, from Sangok’s red nightgown and the Lego-like palette of Jeongok’s apartment complex to, above all, the dominant bands of bright green. and deep in the foliage that seems to follow Sangok everywhere, whether in public parks or private gardens or scenic landscapes, or even indoors. In its sumptuous display of flourishing life, the greenery seems both to reflect its destiny and to ennoble its immediate experience. This transforms his vision into a cosmic unity with nature. (Hong’s attention to color reaches another ironic extreme in the attractive, exotic turquoise of a hermetically sealed, view-blocking roll-down door.) Sangok’s quest lies, above all, not in his dream of record another performance for posterity, but in the ecstasy of the vision itself. Here, more than ever, Hong’s cinema is also revealed to be a philosophy – his method is not a means but an end in itself, an embrace of art history and a preservation of its future in the eternal present of creation.