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- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
Have you ever done a handstand and realised the world looks completely different upside down? Change your perspective and everything looks different. Or something momentous happens – god knows, we’ve all experienced that, these past 18 months – and something like a soup stain on a blouse suddenly appears inconsequential, even charming, even beautiful.
This is how things appear to Sangok (Lee Hyeyoung), the protagonist in South Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo’s latest feature film, In Front of Your Face. The film marks Hong’s 11th time at Cannes and 26th feature, continuing his personal and minimalist register and a nimble methodology that foregoes much scripting in favour of a vivacious play of manners and emotion.
As its title suggests, In Front of Your Face is about proximity and distance – spatial, temporal, and emotional. Its premise has the sparse simplicity of a short story. Sangok is a middle-aged, smartly dressed sometime actress. She returns to Seoul to visit her sister, having spent an extended period of time in the US. The city’s rapid development renders it slightly foreign to her.
The film takes place during the course of a day and a half, shot in a few extended takes, mainly in bars and cafes. Periodically throughout the film we hear Sangok’s inner monologue as she counts her blessings and takes in what she describes as the beauty and grace and perfection of all she sees around her. Even the spot of soup she spills on her blouse, before meeting with Jaewon – a film director interested in casting her – ceases to matter. (Jaewon is played to perfection in a combination of naïveté and arrogance by Hong regular Kwon Haehyo.)
The stain’s being rendered inconsequential is explained when Sangok discloses to Jaewon – and us – the fact that she only has five or six months left to live. Her world, we realise, is turning upside down. 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. “Every moment is beautiful,” Sangok whispers to herself, holding her waist, her chest, her abdomen, as if steadying a world fast slipping from her.
On delivering us her prognosis, Sangok’s starchy pale pink t-shirt suddenly looks less Cos and more hospital gown. The tune she picks out on a guitar for Jaewon – some hesitant notes plucked from memory – becomes her swan song. Jaewon knows it. He cries. Fills his glass and refills it. Promises to make a short film with her in the morning. (He won’t.) Mortality stares him in the face – and she is beautiful. He admits he wants to sleep with her.
As in so many of Hong’s films (Oki’s Movie, 2010; Our Sunhi, 2013; Right Now, Wrong Then, 2015; Hotel By the River, 2018) the female protagonist is far, far stronger than her male counterpart, who succumbs to soju and messes up. Sangok has a resilience that Jaewon mistakenly pronounces purity in a patronisingly reductive gesture of the kind Hong captures so hilariously, painfully, accurately in his films. You have authenticity, Jaewon tells Sangok, and innocence. That’s why I want to make a film with you. But Sangok’s face and body are stronger, older, more storied than Jaewon’s tipsy hyperboles could ever allow. It is as if she has seen something he hasn’t.
“Let me see what is in front of my face,” she whispers, alone again. In front of her, Seoul is remapping itself in Lego block apartment towers and landscaped greenery, garish in the young sun. Sangok visits her childhood home. Its garden is the only thing left, and that too is dwarfed by her “heavy memories” and the city’s gentrification.
Sangok has felt this rush of beauty and gratitude before, she tells us. Years ago, she experienced an episode of wanting to die. But on passing Seoul Station she saw the faces of strangers in the crowd and they suddenly appeared to her so beautiful “I could almost lick them.” Sangok decided not to die that day. In front of her face, their faces saved her.
This time Sangok has no choice and must confront the abbreviated perspective now facing her. This scenario, and its rendering, constitute one of Hong’s most moving films. In Front of Your Face is a love letter to Seoul and a superb character study of the beatific presence of mind and body with which one woman faces death.
The bar Jaewon takes Sangok to, incidentally, is called ‘Novel’. He wants to make a feature film with her – an ambition rendered impossible by her prognosis. The short film he proposes, and cancels the next morning, represents the opportunity he misses in reaching only for grand projects. Sangok – and Hong – understand that great beauty can come in smaller packages.
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