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Two by Hong Sangsoo

Lee Hyeyeong and Jo Yoonhee in Hong Sangsoo’s In Front of Your Face (2021)

Hong Sangsoo’s twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth features are screening in Busan this week, then in Ghent later this month, and Cinema Guild will eventually bring both to U.S. theaters. Perhaps counterintuitively, Hong shot Introduction, which centers on two young students mapping out their futures, in black and white. As Matt Turner writes for Little White Lies, “the overall feel of the film is cool, even chilly, full of snowy white skies and wintry fabrics, favoring remoteness in its emotional temperament.” But when he turns his camera to the mountains of Seoul in In Front of Your Face, a film very much about tying up loose ends while there is still time, Hong “invests” them, notes Chuck Bowen at Slant, “with colors so ecstatic that they’re nearly hallucinatory.”

In Introduction, aspiring actor Youngho (Shin Seokho) chases his girlfriend, Juwon (Park Miso), all the way to Germany, where she aims to launch a career in fashion. Her mother introduces her to an artist (Kim Minhee) with connections in the industry, and when Youngho returns to Korea, his mother sets up a lunch with an accomplished actor. Writing for Sight & Sound back in March, when Introduction won a Silver Bear in Berlin for best screenplay, Nick James admitted that he has run hot and cold on Hong over the years. But this one “has me raising the soju glass and drinking deep. One flaw of his rarer, weaker films is the overloading of conversation with character’s backstories, but in this richly compact sixty-six-minute tale of parents trying to guide their young adult children into an uncertain future, it’s what’s left out of its few scenes—including a two-year jump—that makes how much we come to know and feel about its characters seem miraculous.”

Lee Hyeyeong, the daughter of director Lee Manhee and a bright star of Korean cinema in the 1980s and ’90s, returns to the screen for the first time in over a decade in In Front of Your Face. She plays Sangok, who, years ago, abandoned a successful acting career to follow a man she barely knew to the States. Now she’s returned to Seoul to reunite with her sister, Jeongok (Jo Yoonhee), and meet with a director (Kwon Haehyo) who hopes to revive her career by casting her in his next feature. “What follows in this meeting—buttressed by alcohol, as Hong’s ensemble scenes often are—has to be one of the most emotionally powerful sequences in his oeuvre,” writes David Katz at the Film Stage.

As Morris Yang writes at In Review Online, Sangok presents “a façade of calm belying maelstroms of anguish.” She has been keeping a secret that she will share only with the filmmaker. “Seoul’s steep alleys and tiny bars (Hong continues his filmic catalogue of them expertly), a cigarette under a bridge, a sudden flurry of rain—all is tinged with the beauty and sadness of transience,” writes Becca Voelcker for Sight & Sound. “‘Every moment is beautiful,’ Sangok whispers to herself, holding her waist, her chest, her abdomen, as if steadying a world fast slipping from her.”

“Despite the greater amount of incident in Introduction and In Front of Your Face than in, say, the nearly context-free interactions of Grass and The Woman Who Ran, the sense of characterization emerges equally from the supposed downtime, the moments between the conversations,” writes Ryan Swen at Reverse Shot. “If these two Hong films ultimately resolve themselves more forthrightly optimistic and clear than his others have in a while, it is a testament to his continued inspiration that they take such compellingly divergent pathways to get there.”

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