Film, Film Review

REVIEW: IN OUR DAY (2023) and IN WATER (2023) dir. Hong Sang-soo



In Our Day

Few filmmakers can pop out feature films like bunnies in a petting zoo. Hong Sang-soo is one of the few. Keeping up with his release schedule might as well be a hobby, and even then a new title can come like a thief in the night. That said, we are now thirty movies into the cinematic vision of Hong and, for the most part, these things are all more-or-less cut from the same cloth. Much like the majority of its 29 precursors, if you’re already fond of his light and lonely style, In Our Day, won’t miss. The new film is one of the most recent of his eight features from the 2020s so far and is unmistakably sincere, characteristically niche, philosophizing, and palatably cute. So, it’s Hong! 

If you know, you know. If not, In Our Days is a great place to start. Most of the director’s trademarks are on full and interesting display: soju and ramen, separated and non-intersecting structures, zooms, Kim Min-Hee, minimal produced domestic spaces, and meta-commentary on filmmaking. I’m not the most well-versed of the Hong-Heads, but I believe there are some new developments here too — especially the use of intertitles and the lack of romance or desire. One of his other 2023 films, In Water, also moves in direction with its discourse-enraging use of extreme shallow lens (More on this below). It’s possible the Korean auteur is moving more to the avant-garde; it’s also possible, and more likely, that he will toy more and more with film form as he continues to grapple with his own mortality. 

Hong’s muse and affair partner Kim Min-Hee plays Sang-won, a successful actress staying with her friend Jang-soo (Song Sun-mi) and her cat named “Us.” (We also are made aware of a dog named Us, so, if one can draw conclusions about Korean pet names from this small sample, then South Korea has something interesting going on.) Her cousin, a young actress, shows up and asks big-ole questions about the nature of performance and the meaning of art. Simultaneously, Gi Jubong gives a slightly more vulnerable performance as Hong, a poet coming to terms with his own mortality and in the infancy of alcohol and nicotine abstinence. He too answers questions about his craft, with a mix of artistic optimism and pessimism, when a pretty young documentarian and an aspiring filmmaker separately invite themselves into the former’s home. 

The two threads never connect in terms of character or plot– at least not directly. Hong instead edits across the two in a continuity of theme and even conversation topic that’s hard to miss. There are even a few hints that perhaps the two central artists are somehow important to each other — perhaps in the usually explicit roles of lovers in Hong’s movies. They even share the habit of putting red pepper paste in their ramen, a habit that puts off both of their audiences. They are something of the ever-searching split souls of Plato; only in their art are they reunited. But, as Hong, Sang-soo’s stand-in, says, “Don’t look for meaning. That’s just cowardice.”

“Do you think poetry is needed in this day and age?” Hong, the poet and perhaps also the director, is asked. He points instinctually to the actor asking the question and asks whether or not he reads the poetry. He does and enjoys it. Then, of course, poetry is needed. One could say the same for Hong’s films. He will never be a mainstream artist — even if a film or two ends up with some sort of popular interest — but as long as he is doing something different, he will always have an audience. And he deserves one too.

In Water

I’ll be honest: I never thought I would see a heavily shallow-focused South Korean film referencing water in the title… let alone two of them only a few months apart. Hong’s film is a few months, or close to a year, older than The Waves, The Sand, and Two Lovers in the Middle Of…, which I caught at the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PӦFF), though I saw the latter first.  Somehow, the mouth-full title of the latter is even more experimental than is In Water, the more widely known and narratively driven of the two. The film (in)famously adopts an extreme shallow focus for the majority of its short 61 minute runtime and only rarely do the subjects come into full focus. 

No one is accusing Hong of being overly narratively driven. I’m not sure any cinephile would accuse him of that, though I suppose a normie who stumbles onto Hong by circumstance could lodge such a complaint. The accusations more likely to be tossed at the director relate to the digital plainness of his out-of-box cinematography and improvised scripts. And those things are true! (For the most part, at least.) Since he’s been making movies, it’s been popular to make him out to be some lazy hack phoning it in — perhaps for a quick buck, perhaps for honor. This line of thought misses the coincidence so common to artistic genius. As the director, screenwriter, producer, editor, composer, and sound designer of the picture, I’m sure he could have found easier ways to be lazy if that’s the kind of artist he wants to be. It’s also just wrong. Simple and coincidental aren’t incompatible with generative art or authentic craftsmanship. 

As usual, the characters in In Water are artists. (Or trying to be artists.) A young aspiring director (Shin Seok-ho) puts up $3,000 to make a film on Jeju Island with a pretty actress (Kim Seungyun) and a cinematographer (Ha Seong-guk). The director, Seoung-mo, has no real plans; he does have some emotions he wants to capture and explores those while scouting locations like a songwriter excavating verses. Several reviewers have even drawn allusions between Hong’s cinematography and the Impressionist painters, who have long been celebrated for their ability to spontaneously compact complex emotional experiences into moving colors and blurred landscapes through the use of more start-and-stutter brush techniques. The out of focus images of In Water blur into each other not unlike the water of a Monet painting and the possibly tragic, certainly bleak ending also fits line and toe with the post-impressionist work of Edvard Munch and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. 

I’m almost convinced Hong intentionally plays with the criticisms of him by constantly having the characters talk about how beautiful the flower is or how pretty the rocks are and always withholding that beauty from his viewers. The touristic location on Jeju Island also attests to his patience to refrain from indulging in that beauty. By time the director finally describes the idea for his short film — a short that concludes with a suicidal walk into the ocean for the character, the in-world director’s vision of ending things cements itself with the shallow focus. He walks into the sea until his human form loses itself in the distant waves. The fuzzy pixels lose their clear, creaturely outline and in that moment the look of the film we’ve watched for almost an hour finally articulates itself through the depression of the in-world director. After all, depression makes specificity lose its worth. One thing is no different from another. One reason is just as real as any other.

In Water
dir. Hong Sang-soo
84 min.

In Our Day
dir. Hong Sang-soo
61 min.

This Is Us: Two Films by Hong Sang-soo runs Friday, 2/9 through Sunday, 3/3 @ Harvard Film Archive. For showtimes and ticket info, click here.

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film. 

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