In Water (2023) ☆1/2(1.5/4): In Blur (or Bullsh*t, perhaps)

When my late mentor/friend Roger Ebert was going to review Ingmar Bergman’s great film “Persona” (1966) not long after he became the film critic of Chicago Sun-Times, he did not know what to write first, but then he simply began to write about what he observed and felt during his viewing, and then the rest quickly followed as a result. I tried to follow his example while watching Hong Sang-soo’s new film “In Water”, but I am so sure about how I and other audiences around me were supposed to respond when we watched it at last night. Is this supposed to be a practical joke for his admirers? Or, is this just a deliberate affront to all audiences who paid to see it? Although I fortunately did not pay anything for this exasperating piece of bullsh*t, I was pretty pissed off about wasting my precious 61 minutes without being rewarded much on the whole.

The main reason of my anger and frustration toward this movie mainly comes from its inexplicable visual strategy. Except a few key scenes, many other scenes in the film are blurred on the screen as being deliberately out of focus, and we cannot possibly detect any particular detail and nuance from that. Even those few key scenes do not have much lighting from the start, so we can barely see the main performers’ face in their rather dim environment, and it is often hard for us to sense whatever is exchanged among them beneath the surface.

I must really tell you that I do not mind out-of-focus shots at all. In case of one little but extraordinary Finnish film “The Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic” (2021), many of its key shots are frequently out-of-focus for emphasizing its disabled hero’s visually impaired viewpoint, and that wonderfully works because, above all, it still does not lose any focus on its hero’s face and the thoughts and expressions felt from his face. In case of Hong’s film, it does not have any focus on anything on the screen from the start to the end, so we can only observe its story and characters from the distance without much care or attention.

Come to think of it, I doubt whether there is any substantial story or character in the film from the beginning, because the movie feels like the tepidly extended version of a short film already deficient in terms of story and characters. At the beginning, we are introduced to two lads and a young woman who are working together for a little short film project of theirs in Jeju Island, but we do not know what the hell they are really making, because they still do not have any clear idea on what they are making at present.

Is this a self-deprecating reflection of how Hong usually makes his films? I heard that he often completes his screenplay right before handing it to his performers on the set, and that says a lot about how his movies usually depend a lot on quick improvisation and spontaneity couple with some necessary professionalism. Although many of his films look pretty plain and simple without much editing or camera movement (He has done all the editing and shooting for himself, by the way), they never look visibly bad or lousy, and I must say that they look better than what I shot with my current smartphone.

However, “In Water” surpasses the awfulness of many of my impromptu smartphone videos in many aspects. Besides its utterly unidentifiable main characters, even those locations in the film look so blurred that I doubt whether you can recognize them even if you have ever been to Jeju Island. Sure, the main characters do talk a bit about Jeju Island, but, in my humble opinion, Hong could get away with shooting the film somewhere else for saving a bit of his tiny production budget.

Therefore, we have no choice but to listen to the dialogue and the soundtrack for processing the film, but, again, we are frustrated a lot for good reasons. Although Hong demonstrates again that he is good at writing natural conversations scenes, the conversation scenes in the film only reveal the basic information about the main characters without delving much into their thoughts or feelings. We manage to gather that one of them, who has worked as an actor before deciding to try a bit of filmmaking, wants some change for his life and career, but that is all we can know about him. In case of the two other main characters, they are even less developed in comparison, and, as a matter of fact, the brief voice cameo by one certain well-known South Korean actress associated with Hong has much more presence than all of the characters of the film. Along with the brief music provided by Hong, this actress sings a bit on the phone later in the film, and this little moment of saving grace made me wish more that she will be able to work in other films besides Hong’s works.

In contrast, the three main performers of the film, Shin Seok-ho, Ha Seong-guk, and Kim Seung-yun, are thoroughly wasted as their supposedly diligent efforts are already blocked from us from the beginning, and that reminds me of late film critic Gene Siskel’s famous question: “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?” Regardless of whether they knew the technical impediment they were going to face right from when they agreed to appear in the film, the performers try their best with their sheer thankless task, and they should not be blamed at any chance.

In conclusion, “In Water” is the worst film in Hong’s long and consistent career, and I feel rather sorry for whoever will work on its Blu-ray or DVD edition, if that is actually planned later. No matter how much those technicians will try, their efforts will be impeded by Hong’s misguided visual approach in one way or another, and I think they will be a lot happier with working on my anoscopy video shot in 2009. Believe me, my anoscopy looks sharper and more detailed besides being in focus as required, and I assure you that this will be much more entertaining than “In Water”.

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