‘The Woman Who Ran’ (2020) directed by Sang-soo Hong

It struck me this week that some of the things I feel I should, and want to write about are those things that I do purposefully as a way of doing nothing. As discussed in a previous post however, this of course leads to the problem of never doing nothing, never switching-off as an artist, writer, observer, thinker etc.

One of the things I wanted to write about is listening football on the radio (which I think of as absurd, and therefore relaxing), another is graffiti in the park (which I think of as a kind of vibrant and enthusiastic backdrop to my quiet daily walks). But in the end, I feel myself being drawn away from these two themes in the direction of another current or contemporary Korean movie (see last week’s ‘Minari’ post), this time viewed via ‘MUBI’ – a kind of arty or art-house streaming channel.

The movie is ‘The Woman Who Ran’ (2020) directed by Sang-soo Hong, and acted by Min-hee Kim, Song Seon-mi and Eun-mi Lee. I don’t intend to write a long review like the one I did las week for ‘Minari’, but nevertheless just want to express and share my responses. Immediately after watching this film I felt it was kind of engaging, and suggestive, but overall pretty flat. However, the more I thought about it, reflected on it, and discussed it with my partner, the more I liked it. This is a film that doesn’t use any standard or typical kinds of editing, dramatic narrative, lighting or music to manipulate your emotions and/or lead you to identify with any of the characters in particular.

In some ways it reminded me of French avant-garde cinema, of e.g. Jean Luc-Godard, in which all those dramatic and narrative devices are challenged, parodied or dispensed with. Except here, you can see a director of a much later generation, simply being free to do without those conventions, and to make a film stripped of anything non-essential to the simple – but nevertheless quite deep, quite meaningful – information it wants to impart. Let’s just say there are no distractions from what it is that the director wants you to see, hear, and respond to in any way you wish.

The film uses the narrative device of young woman, married for five years, looking up old friends on a series of home visits, while her husband has gone away on a business trip. In a way, nothing more happens than that. Of course there are conversations, catch-ups, and one of the things that all the women friends she visits is the respective states of their respective relationships with men, their marriages, divorces etc.

Interestingly three men do appear in the movie but on each occasion keep their back to the camera. They also seem to be various kinds of ‘pain-in–the- ***’. There is only one symbolic device used in the film and that is a reference to a cock who rules a hen house by means of violence.  

In a way there seems little more to say about this movie than that. Instead of using editing, the director rather straightforwardly zooms in occasionally to refresh the image of a conversation. When music is deployed it doesn’t operate in the background affecting us semi-consciously but rather cuts in, starkly and with apparently purposeful bad quality, to make some kind of clear break.

All the women occupy a liberal, middle-class, postmodern Korea, and exist on the margins of its relatively privileged art scene. The central figure (if we can call her that) claims her life is ‘boring’ (her husband is a translator and she runs a flower shop) though she is clearly privileged enough to change her situation with relative ease.

There are also a few characters who are seen slightly off-stage, including a young girl, neighbour of one of the visited friends, whose mother has left her, having gone off in the night and left her with her (another ‘pain-in-the ***’) father. So, what makes this movie worth remembering, watching or watching again, is its – (I hesitate to use the word) – ‘truth’, in at least showing us some slices of lives in which everyday narratives and relationships are not resolved or over-dramatised but simply trundle on, dwindle away and morph into new narratives and new relationships.

Every apartment contains a little life in which these mini-stories and relationships unfold. In postmodern Korean life, and the postmodern Korean architecture that partly determines it, CCTV also enables neighbours to have a newly mediated relationship with neighbours – who might just live to the side or above or below us- who occasionally drift closer into our own private realm – e.g. a neighbour who is clearly in trouble, or one who complains about our activities.

Yes, there is truth in all of that, and so, formally we can praise and admire the director and the rest of the cast and crew for side-stepping all the usual temptations (and expense) of mainstream cinema, and using a more ‘arty’ realm and remit to hold up a mirror to reality and draw us, subtly, into some worlds we feel we might know or be familiar with.

Form and process aside however, this is surely (see our first paragraphs above) some kind of a ‘feminist’ movie (directed by a man). But perhaps ‘feminist’ is the wrong term here; I’d prefer to say it is a movie about, or ‘showing’ women’s lives and perspectives in a particular place and time, i.e. Korea in the 21st century, or at least a little part of that Korea, a kind of exemplary part in a way, its successful, progressive, artistic, stylish, eloquent and thoughtful part; a part of a society where, it might seem, according to this movie, that lives are not too bad, not too exciting, not too successful, not too boring, not too politicised, and relatively free.

Whether this content and the aforementioned form or formal devices can be reconciled in a more detailed interpretation I’m not sure. I’d like to try. But for now, I’d just like to leave you with the kind of feeling that this movie left ME with – a slightly flat, but OK, gently entertained and lightly informed feeling about a place in the world and a group of people who are interesting enough, free enough, rich enough, happy enough etc. and THAT, probably, is the most or the best you can expect from a society, here, now, in the 21st century, on this often complex, bewildering, messy and sometimes monstrous planet.


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