He has a cinephile fanbase stretching from Seoul to Paris to New York, but Hong Sang-soo remains largely terra incognita to UK cinemagoers, since only two of his 28 features have ever been officially distributed in cinemas. Presumably, he just doesn’t tick the boxes for genre marketability, effects spectacle or upfront social satire. Instead, the Korean’s prolific outpouring of celluloid miniatures possibly seem too casual and compact to make an impact. Hong, though, characteristically packs these booze-sodden conversation pieces with myriad layers of emotional observation, philosophical musing and meta-textual significance.
That’s certainly true of In Front of Your Face, which coincidentally proves a very fine place to start your Hong journey. It’s his first time working with Lee Hye-yeong, an actor who’d made her name in 1980s Korean cinema but retreated to TV for the past decade, and who’s absolutely stellar here as a returnee from expat life in the US, back home to reconnect with her sister and maybe her roots. There’s a high cheek-boned poise to Lee’s screen presence which suggests she’s not going to be easy to know, yet we’re intrigued by occasional voiceover highlighting her determination to take strength from the everyday grace of each moment.
We sense she’s a somewhat troubled soul, and revelations do indeed follow over a drunken long lunch with. Split the difference.a predatory film director admirer. This extended set-piece is simply remarkable, not least for the sheer acting chops Lee displays when, after sundry bottles of Chinese liquor, she grabs a nearby acoustic guitar to distract the would-be Lothario by picking through a half-remembered folk tune.
We’re absolutely rooting for her to escape unscathed, yet the scene’s big reveal suggests that her die may already be cast, while also pointing up the key themes Hong has threaded into this seemingly flung-together series of encounters. Lee’s response to life’s aching evanescence is to savour the joy in each moment, as opposed to the self-involved director (brilliantly creepy Hong regular Kwon Hae-hyo) fighting against time itself, eager to preserve his youthful infatuation with her in the form of a new film collaboration.
Some folks may yet be wondering how the critical hype around Hong can be justified by something which still seems so tiny – a handful of characters, a lot of dialogue, camera style restrained to the point of near-invisibility. Yet his admirers truly appreciate the Tardis effect of his films, which open out hugely from their seemingly confined scale. This is another subtle jewel, wise and charming, insouciant yet measured, and somehow squaring the circle between the overwhelming sadness of lost time and the glint of eternity in a passing instant.
Hong newbies uncertain, Hong fans excited. Split the difference.
Ostensibly mundane, stealthily packed with emotion and an underlying reflective quality.
The film just gives you so much to unpack. Repeat viewing essential.