Hong Sang-soo’s latest film “In Front of Your Face” is another interesting attempt in his long and steady career. While merely observing one day of its middle-aged heroine on the surface, the movie gradually gets rather melodramatic as she becomes more reflective about her current status, and then we are later served with a dramatic moment accompanied with, as many of you have already expected, several glasses of booze.
During the first act of the film, which is set in one of those satellite cities around Seoul, we are introduced to a middle-aged lady named Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young), who recently came back to South Korea after many years she spent in US. She is currently staying in a high-rise apartment belonging to her younger sister Jeong-ok (Jo Yoon-hee), and we see her and Jeong-ok later spending some time outside, but, despite their cordial conversation, we sense some emotional reservation from Sang-ok. When her younger sister suggests that Sang-ok should settle back in South Korea and then buy an apartment to live for the rest of her life, Sang-ok seems to be interested in that suggestion to some degree, but she does not agree to that suggestion nonetheless, and that leaves some awkwardness between her and Jeong-ok.
Sang-ok and Jeong-ok subsequently move around in Jeong-ok’s neighborhood. At one point, they drop by a little restaurant run by Sang-ok’s son, but he happens to be absent for a while, and they instead have a little talk with a young plucky female employee working there. In addition, they also have a little quite moment at a nearby public park, and Sang-ok becomes more reflective as serenely doing a sort of prayer inside her.
Because she happens to have an appointment for some private meeting in the afternoon, Sang-ok later goes to Seoul by a cab. When she is notified that the time and location of the meeting have been unexpectedly changed, she decides to go to some other spot in Seoul and then spend some time there before going to that meeting later. That spot in question turns out to be where she and her family once lived many years ago, and she cannot help but feel nostalgic even though this place has been changed a lot in many aspects. Now this place is turned into a little shop, but there are several things which seem to bring her back to her memories of past, and there is a little poignant moment when she happens to have a brief encounter with a little young girl. While probably seeing her younger self from that young girl, Sang-ok remains as reserved as before, but Lee Hye-young, a veteran actress who has been steadily active since she made her screen debut in 1981, subtly suggests the emotions behind her character’s phlegmatic façade.
During the last act of the movie, Sang-ok eventually attends the meeting as expected, and a filmmaker named Jae-won (Kwon Hae-hyo) is glad to meet her again after many years since they worked together once. Still remembering how wonderful she was as an actress, Jae-won soon becomes quite sentimental, and then he suggests that she should appear in his latest movie project. Although she has never acted since that old time between them, he assures her that she can be as good as she once was, and Sang-ok seems to be more interested in his offer while they talk more and more with each other.
As he frequently did in his previous films, Hong, who also handled the cinematography and editing of the film in addition to its music, continuously observes what is slowly emerging on the screen as the two characters of the movie interact more and more with each other in front of the camera. As the mood becomes a bit mellow thanks to not only a little impromptu music performance but also several shots of some Chinese liquor, Sang-ok and Jae-won are willing to be more honest to each other, and that is when Sang-ok comes to reveal a certain serious fact of hers. As Hong’s camera keeps watching her and Jae-won, we sense the growing awkwardness between them, and then we subsequently get an ironic comic moment when Sang-ok receives a voicemail in the very next morning.
While her character remains as detached as before even at that narrative point, Lee’s performance keeps holding our attention as before and she is also supported well by a few notable performers who come and go along the story. While Jo Yoon-hee complements Lee well with her relatively more cheerful performance, Kwon Hae-hyo, who have often collaborated with Hong in Hong’s several previous films such as “Hotel by the River” (2018), is effortless as he and Lee subtly push and pull each other during their key scene, and I also enjoyed the brief appearance of Kim Sae-byuk and Seo Yeong-hwa, who also appeared in some of Hong’s recent works including “The Woman Who Ran” (2020).
“In Front of Your Face” is Hong’s 26th feature film, and that reminds me again of how constantly productive he has been since his first feature film “The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well” (1996). Although I felt rather distant to his earlier films such as “Woman on the Beach” (2006), I came to appreciate his later films including “Hahaha” (2010) and “Oki’s Movie” (2010), and I also admire how he has recently tried something different via “The Woman Who Ran”, which exemplifies well his recent interesting shift toward female characters just like “In Front of Your Face” and “In Another Country” (2012).
Although I must say that it is relatively less humorous and amusing compared to his better works, “In Front of Your Face” is still another good work from Hong, and I think Hong has another fairly productive year because of this film and “Introduction” (2020). In short, I got as much as I expected, and I am ready to move onto whatever he will give us in the very next year.