In Water: a gently gorgeous delight from Hong Sangsoo

The Korean director’s 29th feature is by far the most visually beautiful of his non-monochrome films – and is deliberately filmed almost entirely out of focus.

1 March 2023

By Thomas Flew

L-R: Ha Seoungguk, Shin Seokho and Kim Seungyun in In Water (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

Hong Sangsoo starts his 2023 filmography – more films are undoubtedly on their way from the prolific Korean auteur – with In Water, a characteristically low-key sketch whose runtime just sneaks past the hour mark. An actor-turned-director (Shin Seokho) has taken two actor friends (Ha Seongguk and Kim Seungyun) with him to Jeju Island – Korea’s southernmost territory and a frequent holiday destination for Hong’s characters – to make a film. Hong directs, writes, produces, edits, and acts as DoP, composer and sound designer, as is his wont.

So far, so Hong, but there’s a twist of the kind that will delight his acolytes and infuriate his detractors: In Water is filmed almost entirely out of focus. Save for an early interior scene which is sharp enough to give us a glimpse of the characters’ faces, the film is suffused with the haziness of a half-forgotten memory, obscuring all finer details. This technique, whose employment was, says Hong, a last-minute decision, complements the landscape’s peacefulness and intensifies the warm sunlight that streams across the frame, making this by far the most beautiful of his non-monochrome films. The blurriness makes it harder to parse information from the images, be they trivial (the kind of sashimi being eaten) or more important (characters’ facial expressions). Perhaps this will make some viewers work harder to ‘understand’ the film, but for those on Hong’s wavelength it encourages a relaxation into each scene’s softened rhythms. Is he suggesting that the details aren’t really all that significant? Given that the three friends’ conversations are calm and convivial, lacking the usual awkward misunderstandings that are sprinkled throughout Hong’s films, this could well be the case.

Filmmakers are recurrent enough characters in Hong’s films that their presence is something of an in-joke in his filmography. Rarer is the act of filmmaking itself being shown (Hong usually focuses on pre-production or distribution when showing his director characters at work), but In Water treats us to some such scenes, in which the three-person cast-cum-crew devise and create scenarios that wouldn’t be at all out of place in one of Hong’s films. Indeed, one of the two scenes we see being shot, in which Shin’s character, Seoungmo, speaks to a litter-picker, is a recreation of an identical moment earlier on in In Water. It’s an open-hearted gesture from Hong, who is peeling back what was already a fairly transparent curtain separating his art and its production (we can imagine him and his crew positioned identically when shooting their version of the scene); its straightforwardness bypasses the usual smugness associated with filmmakers filming filmmakers. The other scene shot by Seoungmo, which ends our film, gives the movie its title. Its combination of the blurred chop of waves, calm seascape noises, and soundtrack (featuring Hong regular Kim Minhee on vocals) make it the most delicately impressionistic ending to any of his 29 features to date.

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