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Korean indie auteur and darling of the international festival circuit Hong Sang Soo returns with his latest offering “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon”, another whimsical tale of awkward relationships and human foibles, washed down as ever with plenty of alcohol. Though it does as usual include a clumsy, emotionally maladjusted director as one of its main characters, the film sees Hong focusing on a young female protagonist this time, the titular Haewon, played by up and coming actress Jung Eun Chae (“Haunters”), who’s joined by several of the director’s regular performers, including Lee Seon Gyun (“Night and Day”), Yoo Jun Sang (“In Another Country”) and Ye Ji Won (“Hahaha”), with a special appearance from veteran actress Jane Birkin.
Unfolding as a series of reminiscences from her diary, the film opens with film student Haewon spending time with her mother (Kim Ja Ok, “Working Mom”) before she heads off to live in Canada, wandering the streets together and chatting about the past. Feeling left behind and lost, Haewon ends up calling Sung Joon (Lee Seon Gyun), a married professor and director she’d been having an affair with. Despite the fact that neither of them really know what they want, the two seem to be rekindling their on-off relationship, until difficulties arise after a drunken dinner with several other students.
Like most of Hong Sang Soo’s recent films “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” is both simple and complex at the same time, with a non-linear narrative and behaviour and motivations that are to a large extent left to the viewer to discern. Told from Haewon’s own perspective, the film features the kind of repetitions and loops which Hong tends to work into his films, with Haewon running into varying though oddly similar situations, different characters spouting the same dialogue in the same locations at different periods of unspecified time. This gives a definite air of ambiguity, not to mention of unreliability, with much left unresolved and up in the air, and with Hong avoiding either answers or explanations, preferring to sit back and hold his characters at a distance, simply letting things play and flow without judgement.
On this level, Haewon is an unconventional protagonist who some viewers may take to and others not. At once vulnerable and strong, aloof yet passive, it’s debatable whether she’s moral or amoral, or whether she’s a lost soul or someone comfortable floating through life. There’s a definite emotional complexity here, at least for those who look for it, not that Hong ever spells anything out, and much like his male characters, Haewon is flawed, troubled and given to odd decision making. At the same time though she is sympathetic, thanks to a fine performance from Jung Eun Chae, and is considerably less vain and petty than Hong’s usual male protagonists, as represented here by the amusingly immature and incompetent Sung Joon. Revolving in part around a love triangle of sorts involving her past, present and possibly future lovers, the film is filled with shifting perspectives and features a variety of different, though generally unsuccessful and painful relationships, allowing Hong to explore and poke fun at both the female and male psyches, with gently comical results.
One of the most enjoyable things about Hong’s films is the way that he never allows them to get heavy handed or melodramatic, and that’s certainly the case here, with the proceedings benefiting from a light and airy feel. There’s a pleasant rhythm to his direction, and though little happens beyond characters wandering around and talking or just sitting around, it’s highly engaging throughout in hypnotic and almost improvised fashion. Hong is one of the few directors working today to be able to bring relationships and emotions to the screen in a truly convincing manner, and the film’s strength lies in the fact that it feels real and genuine, despite what might be considered art house trappings. He’s also one of the even fewer number of directors to really seem to understand the drinking of alcohol and its importance in the human condition and the ebb and flow of conversations over wine – the film is perhaps at its best when the characters are doing nothing more than shooting the breeze and sinking a few.
While nothing new and pretty interchangeable with most of his other films of late, “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” is nevertheless another immensely entertaining offering from Hong Sang Soo. A fun, part-abstract yet warm look at failed and failing relationships and a young woman’s attempts to get to grips with life, it shows again that Hong is one of Korea’s most accomplished directors, with a keen eye and considerable talent for laying bare the inherent foolishness of human nature.
Sang-soo Hong (director) / Sang-soo Hong (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong Eun-Chae … Haewon
Seon-gyun Lee … Seongjun
Joon-sang Yoo … Jungshik
Ji-won Ye … Yeonju
Ja-ok Kim … Jinju
Eui-sung Kim … Jungwon