In Front of Your Face is Hong Sang-soo’s 26th feature. He is deliriously prolific and equally lauded. In each of the last three years alone, he has been awarded a Silver Bear at Berlin. Last year, a koreanscreen.com poll of 158 critics from 28 countries put twelve of his films in a list of the 100 greatest Korean films. Alongside these international accolades, he has won his share of acclaim in his native South Korea. How, then, to approach writing about his films? His films share similar themes and settings, populated by smokers, filmmakers, and prodigious soju. It’s hard to ignore this, in either the films or the criticism. These, with his other stylistic trademarks, reveal an abiding interest in cinema and its spectators.
Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young) and Jeong-ok (Jo Yoon-hee) breakfast together at a café overlooking a pristine lake and lush hills. This is our first opportunity to know anything about the two women, despite the film opening with their activity earlier that same morning. Polite chatter turns into familial bickering as we learn they are sisters. Sang-ok has been living in the United States and their communication has been sparse, if there has been any at all. They fight over unanswered letters that the other claims to have not received. Why has Sang-ok returned? This question hangs over the film. In a sense, the answer is right in front of Jeong-ok’s face. This is a typical Hong scene, where tensions arise over a shared meal.
Sang-ok cuts a figure of deep resignation. At several points throughout In Front of Your Face, a voiceover lets us hear her personal thoughts. These are often like prayers, recognising the little things that make a moment paradise or reminding her to stay in the present. Resignation suggests there’s something she’s not even telling herself, something beyond the tenuous bond between estranged sisters. When she and Jeong-ok stop to have their photo taken, a passer-by (played by recent Hong collaborator Young-hwa Seo) recognises Sang-ok from an old appearance on television. She was an aspiring actress, her previous admittance to working in a liquor store given additional melancholic weight.
There are two things around which their conversation orbits: a dream and a meeting. Jeong-ok says she had a dream the previous night but cannot tell Sang-ok what it was until after midday. To do so before would be unlucky, suggested by a comment regarding a scratcher. Sang-ok presses her once or twice, but neither she nor we are let in. Though simple, this is a stunning example of subversion. That we don’t know the dream allows us to think; not merely to speculate on the dream, but to think about what the mention of dreams opens in us.
What are (or were) Sang-ok’s dreams? What are our own? Why do dreams fascinate us? There are no more answers to these in life than in the film. Thinking is its own end. The other event looming over the morning is a meeting Sang-ok has with an unnamed man. My previous experience with Hong’s films cast my mind into the realm of old lovers. Little information is offered about the meeting or the person, which plays into the sense of resignation that hangs over In Front of Your Face. She doesn’t seem thrilled, setting off to the appointment on her own.
When she does arrive, we learn that Jae-won (Kwon Hae-hyo, another recent Hong regular) is a filmmaker. On one side of a cut, they order food and two bottles of liquor from a Chinese takeaway. On the other side, Jae-won and Sang-ok sit slumped and bleary-eyed over four bottles. He confesses that he saw, as a student, some of her work and has since wanted to work with her. He suggests a collaboration, stating that a first draft of a script could be finished in six months or a year. “So filmmaking takes longer now?” This is a fantastic gag, one which set my mind reeling into how Hong Sang-soo makes films. On In Front of Your Face alone, he is credited as director, writer, cinematographer, and composer. He is similarly multi-hyphenate on many of his films. He works quickly, often drafting a script in brief and writing the dialogue for the day’s shooting in the morning. There is no doubting that any of his projects are Hong Sang-soo films.
Auteur theory has long become the reserve of writers too unambitious to expand the critical vocabulary, but the idea holds a certain sway over my reception of Hong. While I’ll not discount the work of his cast and crew, his hand is distinct. Hong’s films are patient, a quality demanding much from the spectator. Scenes play out in single shots, usually framing two speakers. There are no close-ups to bring us close the characters. We watch and listen as they speak. There’s nothing to distract us from or else ease us into this act spectatorship.
This lack of adornment brings cinema into itself in a way that charts a path forward. A few other recent filmmakers have done this, Abbas Kiarostami and Tsai Ming-liang among them. There’s little to connect the films made by these directors other than a dedication to the possibility of cinema. In a landscape bloated with computer effects and marketing campaigns, the careful placement of one shot after another reflects an unsurpassed passion for film.
Towards the end of their time together, Sang-ok opens herself slightly to Jae-won. In her youth, she learned to see beauty in ordinary faces – that is, to take reality as it is in front of her face. In Front of Your Face is brought to a point where it can only break. Jae-wan, taken by the immediacy of her attitude, makes promises that are naturally rescinded the morning after. Sang-ok laughs, before sitting over her sleeping sister and asking: “Are you dreaming?” The camera zooms out, leaving us with an unanswerable question.