South Korean film “Hill of Freedom” has everything we can expect from Hong Sang-soo, who has delighted us with his small but witty human comedies. What we have here is another amusing tale of men and women from one of the most distinctive South Korean directors, and we have a pleasant time with its lightweight stroll which is alternatively baffling and tantalizing.
The movie revolves around a personal story which is told through a bunch of letters left to Kwon(Seo Young-hwa). They were written by a Japanese guy named Mori(Ryo Kase), and we gather a few pieces of the background information about their relationship in the past as she begins to read his letters. They once worked at some language institute where they taught English, and Mori proposed marriage to her as a guy who loved her, but he was rejected by her. He instantly left for Japan after that rejection, but then he came back to Seoul for his second chance two years later.
Unfortunately, though he managed to find where she lives, he could not find Kwon because she took a long vacation due to her illness, so, as waiting for the chance to meet his love again, he stayed for a while at a nearby guest house, and the movie shows us how he got acquainted with a number of people he encountered during his short stay. While Yeong-seon(Moon So-ri), a young woman who runs her cozy cafe near the guest house(the title of the movie comes from the name of her place), becomes more intimate with Mori as they meet each other more, we also observe the growing friendship between Mori and Sang-won(Kim Ee-seong), a jolly guy who has been allowed to stay at the guest house for free by its kind middle-aged owner Goo-ok(Yoon Yeo-jeong).
This is a very simple plot, but the movie presents Mori’s story in a non-chronological fashion, for Kwon happens to get Mori’s letters dispersed with no way of finding their correct order. As Kwon continues to read the letters one by one despite that, we see Mori and Yeong-seon coming across each other as an owner and a customer at one point, and then we see when they become far closer to each other than before at the other point, and then we get more information as watching their other scenes which probably happened somewhere between these two time points.
As trying to figure out the chronological order of the scenes in the film, we are constantly baffled. Even when it arrives at the ending, a number of things in the story are not clear to us, and we come to feel the certain blanks between Mori’s letters. For instance, we are told that he had a fight with some guy during one scene, but the movie never shows how that exactly happened, and we can only guess that it might have involved with a guy whom Mori met at Yeong-seon’s cafe on one unspecific day. In addition, because we frequently see Kwon reading Mori’s letters, we also come to have a couple of questions about what is shown and told in the movie, and there is more than one way to interpret the final scene considering what precedes that ambiguous scene.
You may lose your way in this small labyrinth of space and time as a result, but the movie keeps our interest intact through its humorous moments of silly, amusing human interactions which are sometimes accompanied with drinking. While soju, Korean distilled liquor which has been one of usual props in Hong’s films, appears less frequently than before, we often see Mori and others drinking wine instead, and Mori finds himself stuck in a rather embarrassing situation as he keeps finding himself being with Yeong-seon even though he knows he should not do that considering the purpose of his visit to Seoul.
Like Hong’s previous film “In Another Country”(2012), many of the dialogues in the film are spoken in English, and that becomes its another source of fun as Mori and Korean characters try to communicate with each other through English. While the Korean characters in the film are clumsy at times with the language foreign to them, their clumsiness with English feels as natural as my own clumsiness in speaking with my foreign lab colleagues, and there is a funny moment between Mori, Sang-won, and Sang-won’s foreigner friend(Do Soo-cheon) as they spend their evening with bottles of wine. According to what I have heard, Kase Ryo and other actors really drank on the set as encouraged by the director while the camera was rolling, and the drinking scenes in the film certainly reminded me again that you should think twice about working with Hong Sang-soo if you are a recovering alcoholic.
Under Hong’s relaxed direction based on his frequent improvisations on the set, his actors look lively and spontaneous in their likable performances. Ryo Kase is amiable as the drifting center of the story, and he is nicely supported by several actors who previously worked with Hong before. Moon So-ri, Kim Ee-seong, Yoon Yeo-jeong always provide good entertainment whenever they interact with Kase, and Jeong Eun-chae briefly appears as an oversensitive girl whose personal situation leads to one of the best scenes in the film.
“Hill of Freedom” is quite short even when it is compared with Hong’s recent films(its running time is only 67 minutes), and it passes lightly as we enjoy its individual moments one by one under its leisurely mood. While seemingly staying in his usual territory, Hong Sang-soo tries a different way to present his familiar story, and I watched it with amused smiles even when I felt a bit lost during my viewing. I felt like doing the same things again whenever I wrote about his films, and this film is no exception as expected, but I will not deny that watching this small playful movie was a nice experience to end the last day of my holiday vacation.