South Korean film “Hommage” reminds me again of that considerable gap between me and many old South Korean films in the past. Like many other audiences, I usually regard them as something no more than inconsequential artifacts, but, regardless of whether they were lost forever or not, they all are worthwhile to be remembered and researched as the parts of the South Korean movie history, and the movie makes a good point on that as poignantly resonating between past and present.
At first, the story mainly revolves around Ji-wan (Lee Jung-eun), a middle-aged female independent filmmaker who has been quite frustrated with how her filmmaking career has been going nowhere for years. Mainly because her latest movie does not draw enough audiences just like her previous works, Ji-wan and her producer, who has also been her best friend, cannot find any chance for the investment on their next film, and, as her best friend is going to quit her movie-producing career, she becomes more doubtful about whether she can go on or not.
In case of her private life, things have been not that good for her either. Her husband comes to show more of his discontentment on how she has often neglected him and their son as focusing more on her filmmaking career, and their son, who is a college student, does not hesitate to tell her that she has not achieved much as a filmmaker, though he still cares about his mother as reflected by his little gesture of affection at one point.
While she struggles to write the screenplay for her next film, Ji-wan is approached by an old colleague of hers on one day. He offers a little film archive project in the need of a supervisor, and, though she is not so eager to do another work at present, Ji-wan eventually accepts the offer mainly due to her current financial difficulties.
However, the job turns out to be more demanding than Ji-wan expected. They want to restore “A Woman Judge” (1962), the third and last film directed by a real-life South Korean female director Hong Eun-won in the 1960s, and they recently discover an old print of that film, but the second part of this print is heavily damaged on the soundtrack. Naturally, they will have to re-record all the dialogues in that damaged part, so Ji-wan embarks on searching for anything to help the restoration process. Thanks to Hong’s daughter who has preserved lots of stuffs from her mother who died around 20 years ago, Ji-wan can find the original screenplay written by Hong, but she still needs more information and help, so she begins to look for anyone associated with the production of “A Woman Judge”.
Around that narrative point, the movie gradually blurs the border between fact and fiction. As Ji-wan meets several characters probably based on real-life persons who actually worked with Hong during that time, we get to know more about how difficult it really was for Hong and a few other female filmmakers during that time. Hong was in fact the second female filmmaker in the South Korean cinema history, and, needless to say, she had to constantly struggle with sexism before eventually quitting her filmmaking career. Just imagine how things would have been different for South Korean cinema if she and other fellow female filmmakers had been allowed to have artistic/professional freedom as much as Kim Ki-young or Im Kwon-taek during that period. She could have been admired as much as Ida Lupino, you know.
Looking more into “A Woman Judge” as well as Hong’s tragically short filmmaking career, Ji-wan comes to reflect more on how her life and career have been stuck at a dead end for years. Sure, things have been changed a lot for her and many other contemporary South Korean female filmmakers, and there was a time when she was considerably promising, but she has been neglected more as she gets older year by year. When she later happens to have an unexpected medical problem, she comes to reflect more on that universal question we are bound to ask sooner or later in our life: Is that all there is?
I will not go into details on how the screenplay by director/writer Shin Su-won pulls off a small but precious glimpse of hope and optimism for its heroine, but I can tell you instead on how effortlessly Lee Jung-eun, who has been more prominent thanks to her breakthrough supporting turn in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), carries the film via her unadorned acting. While she never seems to strive for emotional effects, Lee subtly but palpably conveys her character’s feelings and thoughts to us, and she steadily holds the film even when the film enters the realm of fantasy. In case of several main cast members surrounding Lee, Kwon Hae-hyo and Tang Jun-sang provide some humor as Ji-won’s two close family members, and Lee Joo-sil has a very poignant moment later in the story as one of a very few surviving persons associated with “A Woman Judge”.
In conclusion, “Hommage” is as sincere and respectful as its very title suggests, and it is surely another compelling work from Shin, who previously drew my attention for “Pluto” (2012) and “Madonna” (2014). As showing genuine care and respect to Hong and other female South Korean filmmakers in the past, she also seems to be ready for what may be the next chapter of her filmmaking career, and I sincerely hope that she will remain as active as before.