▶︎ The Woman Who Ran is streaming on Mubi from 20 December 2020.

Towards the end of Hong Sangsoo’s sardonic chamber drama The Woman Who Ran, a happily married florist, Gam-hee (Hong’s partner and longtime collaborator, Kim Min-hee), runs into an old friend, Woo-jin (Kim Sae-Byuk). During their increasingly heartfelt conversation, Woo-jin, who married Gam-hee’s one-time partner, now a successful writer, confides her doubts about her marriage. Resentful of her spouse’s fame, Woo-jin disparages his public appearances, and perhaps his books: “If he just repeats himself, how can that be sincere?”

Genuineness, or lack of it, is quite a theme with the prolific Korean filmmaker, whose protagonists often reveal their true selves only when woefully drunk. In The Woman Who Ran, while her husband travels on business, Gam-hee is catching up with old female friends, for the first time in years. But how well do they know her? And does she know them?

She brings meat to Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa), who feigns to be eating it, and only then lets slip that she’s a vegetarian. Over rice wine, they extol cows’ gentle eyes while Gam-hee gleefully chomps down her steak. When Gam-hee says they’ve been close for a long time, Young-soon asks gently but assertively, “Have we?”

Kim Min-hee with Seo Young-hwa as Young-soon

Gam-hee’s second visit, with a Pilates teacher, Sou-young (Song Seon-mi), seems frictionless, but here too there’s pleasantry and pretence (for example, when Gam-hee gifts Sou-young a jacket that’s clearly too big bit but they both act like it’s perfect).

Hong’s bare approach to camerawork and equally spare directing don’t easily offer overarching themes or metaphors. With conversations swirling on wildly divergent topics – from mean roosters and terrorised hens to life fulfilment and being single – anything can seem like a clue.

We may ask, for example, if Gam-hee’s the titular woman who ran? And if she did, from what? Might she be on a journey, wanting to shake up her slightly boring life, or is she just on a sprightly jaunt, to confirm how lucky she is to have found true love? Not to mention that a whole set of subsidiary characters, from a tabby-cat to hens to birds perched on electric wires – even picturesque mountaintops from time to time popping into view – make it seem like the human drama unfolding within the frame is decidedly minor-key.

Kim Min-hee with Song Seon-mi as Sou-young

Kim’s natural restraint and cool poise as an actress make her character doubly elusive. Like the adorable stray cat that Young-soon and her roommate feed religiously, to their neighbours’ distress, Gam-hee purrs on about her marital bliss.

But her drone – same tones, same repetitive phrases – makes it impossible not to catch on to the film’s central question about the link between an over-reliance on repetition and a possible lack of sincerity. Not only is Gam-hee herself a mystery; she suspects others are too. She peeps furtively on her friends through their security-camera monitors, as if she mistrusts that these women can really find happiness on their own. This makes Gam-hee’s ardent exclamations (how she just loves and envies them their apartments, their financial knack, their purpose!) seem suspect. And if Gam-hee’s doubtful about women’s emotional self-reliance, should we guess that Hong is too?

Kim Min-hee as Gam-hee

It’s possible, of course, that Hong is also in the mood for some clever self-parody. Surely, a director who averages a film every year or two, eight of them with Kim, often touching on similar themes of jealousy and male ego, isn’t immune to the horror of repeating himself, or being seen as contrived? In each of Gam-hee’s three visits, there’s a man anxiously hovering in the background, trying to claim a woman’s attention. The perfect solipsism of these impositions shines through when Gam-hee runs into her ex, the writer, at the cultural centre and cinema, and scorns him: “You think I came because of you?” To which he can only say, “Then why?”

As is often the case, it’s futile to try to pin a single frame of mind on Hong’s characters. This may be the point of the movie, after all: what’s often called a ‘personality’ is also this subtle yet incessantly reenforced storytelling about oneself. More than any filmmaker of recent years, Hang-soo reminds his audience that such social performativity isn’t without its perils. In Hong’s mirror, when image and essence overlap, who can really tell them apart? Perhaps not even the self-aware heroine herself.

The good news is that repetition may not be all bad: like the waves in the movie that Gam-hee ends up watching, ensconced alone in the cinema’s dark room, there’s a certain soothing effect, a respite, in life’s redundancy.

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.