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`Woman' Puts Past in Its Painful Place

2004/05/06 Source

By Joon Soh
Staff Reporter

Smart, literate and subtly funny, Hong Sang-soo's "Yojanun Namja-ui Miraeda (Woman Is the Future of Man)" is the latest incarnation of the director's vivid and often unflattering portrayals of how we fumble through desires. Much like his highly acclaimed previous films, the protagonists come off looking selfish and misguided but at the same time wholly and sympathetically human.

"Woman" takes place in a span of two days, starting with two 30-something college friends _ Hon-jun (Kim Tae-woo), an aspiring filmmaker, and Mun-ho (Yoo Ji-tae) an art professor _ catching up on old times. Drinking and talking at a Chinese restaurant, their conversation turns to Son-hwa (Sung Hyun-ah), whom they both dated some seven years ago, and in an inebriated moment, they decide to search her out.

Those who have watched Hong's earlier films like "Kangwondo-ui Him (The Power of Kangwon Province)" or "Oh! Soojung (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors)" know not to expect dramatic narrative twists. In fact, not much will seem to be happening in "Woman", even when Mun-ho and Hon-jun do find Son-hwa halfway through the film.

But the thing with Hong's films is that the closer you look, the more you'll see. As in Hong's 2001 film, "Saenhwal-ui Palgyon (Turning Gate)", "Woman" revolves around how two relationships to the same person play off each other. There's a sense of overlapping and symmetry in the way the two friends dealt with their past love, which we see through a series of flashbacks, and through it, how they deal with life in general. For Hon-jun, Sonhwa was a love thoroughly mishandled, one he abandoned when going off to the United States to study and still feels lingering guilt over. For Mun-ho, who met Sonhwa after Hon-jun, his feelings and intentions are more distanced and therefore more difficult to ascertain.

Though the director leaves a lot of room for improvisation, often working without a set script or dialogue, "Woman" is still a carefully rendered film, with all its banal components having a precise place. This order is most obvious in a cleverly filmed Chinese restaurant scene, in which the two unknowingly repeat each other's actions, including using similar lines while flirting with the waitress.

But perhaps because of the precision in its execution, "Woman" lacks an element of surprise that, no matter how reserved, Hong's works have always had before. A film that will compete at Cannes later this month, "Woman" may not have the disquieting epiphanies of his best work, but it is perhaps the best-crafted film Hong has made, and shows a director who has fully come into his own.

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