Hong Sangsoo’s new film opens with the image of chicken pecking at grains. A little later, we get a snatch of conversation between two women, neither of whom has been introduced to us. One of them is heading out for a job interview. She is nervous. She asks if her face is puffy, because she has been out drinking the previous night. She leaves. Much later, we learn who she is, what happened to her mother, and how these two women know each other. We get a bit of history about those chickens, too. This is how normal life works. We begin conversations where we last left them. We don’t worry that an “audience” might not “get it”.
This flow — this beautiful, wholly organic flow — is why each Hong Sangsoo movie is so special. It’s like overhearing conversations in a train or in a restaurant. We catch bits and pieces, and if we stay long enough, we slowly piece things together. The Woman Who Ran revolves around Gamhee (Kim Minhee), whose husband has just left on a business trip. She sets out to meet two women on the outskirts of Seoul, and accidentally runs into a third woman, someone from her past she’s fallen out of touch with. These three episodes contain internal (i.e. structural) echoes. There’s always food. There’s always a man who steps into the picture midway. There’s always some CCTV footage. There’s even the marital status of the three women Gamhee meets: one is divorced, one is single and searching, one is married.
Aided by the director’s signature long (and static) takes and dialogue-centric approach, Gamhee and the women just talk. They talk about nothing and they talk about everything. They talk about how nice the air is in the countryside and how quiet it is, so quiet that you can hear those chickens. They talk about men they’ve left behind, men they are looking for. There are conversations around cats (this is hilarious, with a masterful visual payoff). The style may be minimalistic, but there is a lot going on — so much so that you may realise, only slowly, that this isn’t the story of the women Gamhee visits as much as Gamhee herself.
She’s never been apart from her husband for even a day in the five years they’ve been married. People in love should always stick together, her husband has told her. When asked if she loves her husband, she replies, “I don’t know.” But she adds, “We manage to have good moments every day.” Is that enough? The title is never explained, but Gamhee may be the woman who ran. The instant her husband left, the minute she got some breathing space, she ran far away from Seoul to meet these friends she hasn’t met in ages. At one point, in a near-empty theatre, she watches a movie. It has scenes that show waves rolling into the sea. “Did you like it,” a friend asks. Gamhee says, “Yes, it was peaceful.” Maybe that’s why she ran — for some space, for some peace.
The easy (and perhaps dismissive) way of describing Ray Yeung’s Suk Suk would be to call it Brokeback Mountain for older men. But trading youth for senior citizenship results in a very different kind of ruefulness. These men aren’t discovering their sexuality. They have lived with it for decades, having married and produced children and grandchildren. The first scene of the film shows Pak (Bo Tai), a taxi driver, picking up his granddaughter from school. They come home to a big family that gathers around a small dining table in a small room. There’s a son, a daughter-in-law, a daughter and her fiancé, and of course, Pak’s wife, who is like every homemaker of a certain age we’ve met at some point. During meals, the family threatens to burst out of the confines of the screen, which is another way of saying that they crowd around Pak in a manner that suggests there’s no escape.
And then there’s Hoi (Ben Yuen), who becomes Pak’s lover. He lives with his ultra-Christian son’s family, but the son is so caring that the daughter-in-law says he’d probably put her in a home first before washing his hands off his father. The film — based on writings by sociologist Travis Kong, that were published as Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong — doesn’t cut deep, and yet, in a series of gentle sequences, it shows how difficult it is for older men to come out. And it is not just “what will people say!”. Hoi says he can never tell his son and disappoint him. It’s the question faced not only by gay men but by anyone who longs for individualism in a conservative society: Is the happiness of one man (or woman) worth the heartbreak it brings to many?
Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken turned out to be the festival’s biggest bummer. A huge cast — Javier Bardem (Leo), Elle Fanning (as Leo’s daughter, Molly), Salma Hayek (as Leo’s ex, Dolores), Laura Linney (as Rita, another ex) — struggles in vain to put over a maudlin story about a man with memory-loss issues and his overwrought daughter who seems to be in utter denial that he needs urgent professional help. Leo keeps retreating into memories from Mexico and Greece, and these interweaving flashbacks are supposed to culminate with a revelatory bang about his regrets (aka “the roads not taken”). But all we feel is exasperation, especially with the banality of the scenes and lines. “You are always you!” Molly tells Leo, tearfully! Really?