South Korean independent film “Sophie’s World” reminds me again of how influential Hong Sang-Soo’s films have been during last two decades. Although it is not made by or associated with Hong, its several notable aspects including its very plain title design may fool you enough to mistake it for Hong’s latest work, and the only difference between this film and Hong’s works is that its running time is a bit too long in comparison.
Like some of Hong’s best films, the movie is mainly set in the Bukchon neighborhood of Seoul while mostly revolving around a few main characters. One of them is a young married woman named Soo-yeong (Kim Sea-byuk), and the opening scene shows her casually checking an online travel blog belonging to her foreign friend Sophie (Ana Ruggiero), who happened to stay at Soo-yeong’s residence around two years ago.
As Soo-yeong reads what Sophie wrote during that brief period, the movie moves back to when Sophie was going through her first day in Soo-yeong’s cozy residence located somewhere in Bukchon. Sophie’s main purpose of visit to Seoul is meeting an old South Korean friend of hers who means a lot to her for an unspecified personal reason, and, as far as she knows, this dude is supposedly running a bookstore in Bukchon, but she does not know where that bookstore exactly is. Right from the morning of her first day, she tries to find it while going around here and there in Bukchon, but she still cannot find him or his bookstore, and even a couple of generous local guides she come across at one point cannot help her at all.
Meanwhile, Sophie gradually notices a domestic conflict between Soo-yeong and her husband Jong-goo (Kwan Min-gyoo). At one point, she happens to hear them arguing a lot over something, but she cannot understand at all because she does not know Korean much, and then we see their argument in detail as Soo-yeong looks back on that difficult time between her and her husband. At that time, they happened to have a serious financial problem due to the sudden illness of one of his family members, so they had no choice but to move out from their residence sooner or later, and both of them felt bad about that while also clashing a lot with each other.
During one extended scene, the camera simply looks at the ongoing argument between Soo-yeong and her husband from its static position, but the growing tension on the screen feels more palpable to us as Soo-yeong tries to handle her husband’s petty anger as much as possible. No matter how much she tries, her husband, who has been mired a lot in pathetic self-pity, cruelly lashes her more and more, and she is eventually driven to her breaking point while he belatedly comes to discern the consequence of his pettiness.
While Soo-yeong and her husband struggle to deal with their domestic problem behind their back, Sophie continues her search for that dude as before, and the movie shows us more of what a nice and neighborhood Bukchon is. I must confess that I have never been there, but many sites look pretty familiar thanks to Hong’s films, and, as shown from a number of key conversation scenes in the movie, director Lee Jae-han and his crew members did a good job of imitating that dry but subtle comic tone of Hong’s films.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Sophie eventually discovers where that dude and his bookstore is, but the movie still has some surprises for us before that narrative point. I enjoyed an absurd encounter between Sophie and Soo-yeong’s landlady, and I was also entertained by the quiet but cheerful sequence unfolded between Sophie and another old friend of hers. They just simply spend their time together, but they feel good to be around each other, and Sophie is certainly disappointed when that friend of hers happens to be unavailable on the next day.
When it arrives at its rather melancholic finale, the movie also shows a bit of optimism. Although Sophie’s brief journey in Bukchon did not satisfy her much, what she observed during that short period makes Soo-yeong look back on what happened between her and husband, and there is a little poignant moment as Soo-yeong and her husband come to reflect on how much they have been matured since that point.
Lee draws unadorned but solid performances from his small cast. While Kim Sae-byuk, who is incidentally no stranger to Hong’s films, and Kwak Min-gyoo are believable as a couple with some issues, Ana Ruggiero holds her own place well as another main character in the story, and several other supporting performers including Kim Woo-kyum and Moon Hye-in are also fine in their small respective parts.
In conclusion, “Sophie’s World” emulates fairly well what works in many of Hong’s films, though, in my inconsequential opinion, it does not surpass what was already achieved by a bunch of similar films ranging from “Worst Woman” (2016) to “Lucky Chan-sil” (2020). At least, I was amused and entertained enough during my viewing, and you will appreciate its enjoyable elements if you have admired many of Hong’s films like I have, but please do not expect too much from this modestly engaging piece of work.