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'Woman is the Future of Man' lays bare twisted human nature

2004/05/04 Source

Hong Sang-soo, one of Korea's most celebrated filmmakers, enjoys laying bare the way human nature becomes twisted. His latest film, "Woman is the Future of Man", is no exception, though it subtly departs from his previous works in terms of style.
On a cold winter morning, Hun-joon (Kim Tae-woo) meets Moon-ho (Yoo Ji-tae), his younger college friend. Hun-joon is just back from the United States after finishing his film studies, and Moon-ho is now a part-time lecturer at a university, living in a posh house with a wife and a daughter.

In a Chinese restaurant, they drink and reminisce about their school days and about a girl they both loved - or thought they did.

Seven years ago, Hun-joon was dating a beautiful girl named Seon-hwa (Sung Hyun-ah), but their relationship soured and Hun-joon decided to leave without a word. But Moon-ho, who had a secret crush on Seon-hwa, brought her to the airport to say goodbye. In a flashback, Hun-joon is taken aback at the sight of his girlfriend, but he quickly calms down and tries to save face by asking Seon-hwa to wait for him, though he has no intention of returning.

The scene with its cheesy dialogue reveals Hun-joon's shallowness. But Moon-ho, who started a relationship with Seon-hwa after Hun-joon's departure, is no better. Korean professors and college lecturers may take offense at the way this character pursues his profession, motivated only by status and the wish for a stable, easy and privileged life.

After hours of drinking at the Chinese restaurant, the two men decide to find their former lover. But it turns out that Seon-hwa, the picture of beauty and innocence in their memories, runs a hotel bar in Bucheon, a satellite city near Seoul. Nonetheless, they set out on a journey out of intensifying curiosity and dark desire, a recurring theme in Hong's previous films.

Seon-hwa, without showing much emotion upon seeing the two, asks them to wait in front of her apartment. When she returns, Seon-hwa has sex with both men during a meaningless all-night drinking party.

At first glance, Hong seems to treat the character of Seon-hwa in a negative way. After all, she is a bar owner, an occupation associated with prostitution. Before meeting Hun-joon and Moon-ho, we see her getting out of some unknown man's luxury foreign car, suggesting that she leads a seedy existence in Bucheon.

On closer inspection, however, Seon-hwa is not a simple character. The reasons she left school and ended up in her present job are never explained. Even when she meets two significant men from her past, Seon-hwa shows no emotional ups and downs. For reasons that are not made completely clear in the film, she embraces both men - physically and psychologically - though they are vulgar and pathetic.

In a premiere for the Korean press, Hong urged reporters to focus on the movie itself and to try not to compare "Woman" with his previous works. This is hard to do, however.

"Woman" is relatively straightforward and more humorous than Hong's other films. It is his tongue-in-cheek answer to a flurry of romantic comedy flicks, which have carved out a significant share in the thriving Korean cinema industry by pandering to the myth that first love is pure and innocent.

But whether the audience will appreciate the director's artistry to the full remains to be seen. The ending, in particular, is controversial, though details cannot be described here.

Perhaps the title, taken from a poem, may give a hint as to the underlying theme of the movie. Hong explained: "As the future is yet to come, it means nothing, and if the future is multiplied by man, the result is still zero. And if woman is the future of man, which is zero, woman is also nothing".

Such lines may well puzzle critics at the 57th Cannes Film Festival in France to be held next week, as "Woman" has been invited to compete there.

By Yang Sung-jin

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