Hong Sangsoo returns to Berlin with a Berlin-set three-parter
Dir/scr: Hong Sangsoo. South Korea. 2020. 66 minutes.
There’s no stopping Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo from meeting his quota of at least one film a year. At a guess, he seems to have done it in a particularly ingenious fashion in his short and sweet latest, using the opportunity of last year’s Berlinale – where The Woman Who Ran was in competition – to shoot parts of Introduction, mostly with actors who had come to Berlin as part of that film’s entourage. Two scenes are even filmed around Postdamerplatz, the festival’s main base. The fact that Introduction was then selected for this year’s Berlin competition is an apt (and quite possibly calculated) metacinematic ‘coincidence’ for a director whose oeuvre is all about the cyclical nature of life, love and time.
Hong is such a subtle artist, such a master of economy
Shot in functional, digital black and white, this is a ‘minor’ Hong compared to some of the sixteen films he has premiered since 2010 – among them The Woman Who Ran and Right Now, Wrong Then. But it’s still a delight, a wistful, smart, chamber piece that gently teases out questions about whether you can love someone without controlling them in some way, whether acting can be sincere or sincerity can be an act, and how much of our life in the present and future is conditioned by our life in the past (a lot, as it turns out – but we knew that already). While The Woman Who Ran notched up a handful of distribution deals, Introduction is more likely to be a solid festival tourer after its Berlinale debut.
If last year’s film touched on male coercion of women, here the focus is the way parents try to control their children’s lives. In this three-chapter piece, we’re required to play the usual Hong guessing game of working out how everyone is related and what ‘previous’ they have. In the opening chapter, a middle-aged man praying in his office to be given a second chance (to do what?) turns out to be an acupuncturist. Youngho (Shin Seokho), a dishy but rather saccharine young man who tells his girlfriend Juwon (Park Miso) to wait while he visits the surgery, turns out to be the acupuncturist’s son. The needy receptionist, who at first seems merely glad to see Youngho after such a long time, turns out to be someone he once had a relationship with.
Meanwhile an unnamed veteran theatre actor played by Hong stalwart Ki Joobong, who visits the surgery to talk to the doctor although he has nothing wrong with him, turns out only in the film’s final chapter to have had a good reason for calling – and it’s a revelation that provokes a delayed laugh, as we recall the earlier scene in which the doctor, insisting on examining the actor, fills him full of acupuncture needles and then disappears.
Introduction’s other two chapters feature, respectively, Juwon’s and Youngho’s mothers. Both centre on an “introduction” to an older person with whom the mother is, or was, romantically connected. In both cases, we sense, the introduction has to do with a lack of faith in their child’s qualities, their ability to make the correct, independent decisions about their future. The second chapter – the one set in Berlin – sees Hong’s go-to actress Kim Minhee in a small role as a Korean artist based in the city. The film’s third part is set in a Korean seaside resort out of season, where Youngho is summoned to meet his mother’s male friend – someone, she thinks, who can give her son sound advice about his decision to abandon his fledgling acting career.
In addition to writing, producing and directing, Hong also shot and edited the film, as well as composing the slight, lilting string melodies that round out each of the three chapters. But for all Introduction’s artisanal quality, not to mention its minimalist running time, this is still a fully achieved addition to the director’s oeuvre, one that reveals layers of complexity, poignancy and humour as it replays in the mind.
Lines of dialogue emerge and resonate: Juwon’s mother talking crossly about how “young people today are so impulsive” before pausing and adding “but so were we”, or the enigmatic comment made by the young male friend Youngho brings to that seaside meeting, as the two of them stand outside, looking at the sun: “The light is great today – what a shame only we can see it!”. Hong is such a subtle artist, such a master of economy, that even the lighting of a cigarette, or a hug that looks more like two people trying not to fall over, vibrates with inner meaning.
Production company: Jeonwonsa
International sales: Finecut, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Hong Sangsoo
Editing: Hong Sangsoo
Cinematography: Hong Sangsoo
Music: Hong Sangsoo
Main cast: Shin Seokho, Park Miso, Kim Youngho, Ki Joobong , Seo Younghwa, Kim Minhee, Cho Yunhee , Ye Jiwon, Ha Seongguk