In Front of Your Face
(The Cinema Guild, 2021)
About halfway through Hong Sang-Soo’s twenty-sixth feature film, In Front of Your Face (2021), aging actress Sangok (Lee Hyeyeong) makes a mistake. On her way to Itaewon to discuss an acting opportunity with a younger film director, Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo), she pays a visit to her old home in Insa-dong, now a clothing shop run by a young woman. After reminiscing in the green shrubberies of her childhood and conversing with the shopkeeper, she sits in a small room, looking down as her internal monologue creeps in, reprimanding herself for having gone there. She should have refused the allure of memories and living in the past, she tells herself. She must commit to being in the present.
Hong Sang-Soo is one of the most formally and thematically consistent filmmakers of the twenty-first century. Through his use of long takes, zooms, and deceptively complex narrative structures that often employ ellipses, he has explored the gray territory of human relationships, of people prone to drunken mistakes and sex followed by regret. One might be forgiven for thinking that by seeing one Hong film, they have seen them all. But in his book on Hong’s Tale of Cinema (2005), Dennis Lim likens his oeuvre to that of a house; watching just one of his films is taking a single brick out of a home.
This was the ethos behind Lincoln Center’s recent retrospective on Hong, where Lim happens to be director of programming. Titled the Hong Sang-Soo Multiverse, every film in it was exhibited as a double feature, and films were often mixed, matched, and repeated in varying combinations, with each film informing the others as well as adding a subtle new layer to his entire body of work. For example, The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) is paired with Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) for their use of diptych structures, but The Power of Kangwon Province is also screened with Hahaha (2010) simply because they both take place in the same resort town.
In Hong’s latest theatrical release, he offers slight variations on his tried-and-true formula. The story follows Sangok’s mysterious return to Korea after years of living abroad in the United States and her ensuing conversations with her sister, a shopkeeper, and a film director. Hong chooses an aging actress as his protagonist, falling in line with his more recent casting choices of women rather than the overly intellectual, morally ambiguous men of his earlier films. He adopts a triptych structure of encounters, mirroring that of his spectacular The Woman Who Ran (2020).
Yet, even with this familiar bag of tricks at play, he maintains his trademark opaque storytelling in In Front of Your Face. Sangok’s sister Jeongok (Cho Yunhee) asks her why she looks sick and why she has returned to Seoul, both of which she brushes off without any answer, leaving both her sister and the viewers enshrouded in mystery. The film reveals itself only slowly, offering small clues as to its stakes. Early on, Sangok clutches her stomach, leaving us to wonder about her condition. Her intermittent monologues give glimpses into her way of life, but these function more as narrative teases than as concrete details.
In a sly move, In Front of Your Face’s single, pivotal revelation towards the end of the film forces us to reflexively interpret how we’ve viewed it up until that point. During lunch with Jaewon, Sangok confirms our worst suspicions when she confesses she is gravely ill with only months to live. In an externalization and contextualization of her earlier interior monologues, Sangok resists, in her final moments, the urge to contemplate what comes before and after, choosing instead to live in the present, embracing the heaven, beauty, and completeness that lie in front of our faces. On top of demystifying the preceding events, these scenes reveal Hong’s preoccupation with mortality. As such, in its own final moments, the film morphs into a reflection on how Sangok chooses to spend the waning moments of her life.
In classic Hong fashion, the film’s key narrative revelation also has formal implications on the film, putting content and form in conversation with each other. With the added context surrendered at the end, Hong’s usual, unhurried filmmaking style and meandering conversations are aggrandized; we become desperate to mine these exchanges for meaning upon learning that these encounters could be some of Sangok’s last. The decision to pack the film’s events into a single day engenders a sense of urgency when equipped with the knowledge that her time is limited. Every lingering shot and long bout of silence becomes Hong’s answer to the challenge of mortality, creating a ruminative aura that imbues the film with melancholy. In choosing to take his time in the face of human impermanence, Hong offers a cinematic complement to Sangok’s theory of living.
Hong’s other recent examination on mortality, Hotel by the River (2018), is more cynical in nature, depicting a man meeting with his two estranged sons and struggling to tie his loose ends when he senses that he will die soon. In contrast, In Front of Your Face offers insights about appreciating life in the presence of death that are new and more optimistic assertions for a filmmaker who represents typically male characters at their most desperate. We see this most vividly in Sangok’s self-assuredness and comfort in her decision to live in the present. This is captured ardently when she laughs off a voice memo Jaewon leaves her the morning after their lunch, in which he breaks the promises he made to make a film with her the night before, thus rendering her entire trip to Seoul a beautiful waste of time.
Hong’s characters are often searching for something, whether it be creative inspiration in Woman on the Beach (2006), requiting long lost romances in Hill of Freedom (2014), or plain old sex like in many of his films. In contrast, Sangok seems to have it all figured out, and her challenge lies instead in remaining steadfast in her way of life. As such, some of the more tragic moments of the film arise when addressing the past—such as her sister lamenting the lost time between them or her decision to visit her old home—whereas some of the most beautiful arrive in small gestures of grace grounded in the moment—like the gift of a wallet from a nephew or the vibrant colors of the park where Sangok walks with her sister. Fittingly for Hong’s newest film, life’s gifts are right in front of us, and lingering on the fullness of the present yields a wealth of possibilities.