Woman is the Future of Man, the latest film released on DVD from South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, is as infinitely interesting and frustratingly vague as its very title.
The narrative at the heart of this elliptical picture concerns the reunion of two old friends; Hun-joon (Kim Tae-woo), newly returned to South Korea from his filmmaking studies in the US and Mun-ho, a young university professor. With an equal measure of apprehension and belligerence the two men sit down to reminisce over the course of dinner and (many) drinks.
The reunion is awkward and conversation between the old friends is strained. Adding fuel to the palpable agitation, jealousy and regret between them flows like the seemingly endless bottles of beer that accompany their meal. Mun-ho is especially tense throughout their visit and, at one point, randomly attacks Hun-joon for an innocent gesture he made several years earlier toward his wife.
At separate points during the course of their meal, both Mun-ho and Hun-joon get up and leave the conversation out of frustration. As each man sits alone at the table waiting for the other to return they (separately) gaze upon a young woman who is lurking outside the restaurant’s window. The sight of this stranger prompts them to recall their former relationship with Sun-hwa (Seong Hyeon-a), a beautiful young painter with whom both were in love.
A drunken Hun-joon – unaware that Mun-ho and Sun-hwa became involved after his departure to the States – suggests that they go and visit Sun-hwa at the bar where she works in a nearby village. Steeled by the false courage of alcohol, they manage to find Sun-hwa, who treats their reappearance in her life with a casual indifference that belies a broken heart. The reunion quickly moves back to Sun-hwa’s apartment and the rest of the film centers on their long evening (and morning) of remembering and the unavoidable consequences of such a trip back down memory lane.
With a visual style that borders on the austere, Hong Sang-soo is a mannered, lyrical, and (at times) intellectually stimulating filmmaker. His sensibilities as a writer and director have been compared to Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura, L’Eclisse) and the restrained, observant echoes of Antonioni’s films are clearly present in Hong’s work. That Woman is the Future of Man ultimately fails as a cinematic meditation on the nature of recollection, experience, friendship, and love has less to do with Hong’s talent as it does with the inherent limitations of his script.
Existing in the torturous plane between focused chamber piece and meditative character study, Woman is the Future of Man suffers as a result of its relentless focus on its two main protagonists. The narcissistic indulgences of Hun-joo and Mun-ho in their loss, melancholy, and disillusionment ultimately work to undermine the film’s themes and, as a result, alienate the audience from its observations. Hun-joon and Mun-ho’s individual ennui too easily slips into petulance and leaves the film with a nagging sense of hollowness.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Woman is the Future of ManDVD is the behind the scenes featurette that is included with the supplemental materials. Going beyond the standard glossy packages that normally accompany the main picture, this ‘making of’ feature is an interesting and detailed observation of Hong’s directing style and methodology.
With his 1998 debut film The Power of Kangwon Province, Hong’s name was quickly added to the growing list of original and influential Asian filmmakers that are now dominating global art-house cinema. From the brash genius of Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and the graceful poetry of Hou Hsiao-hsien (Three Times, Café Lumière) to the incomparable Wong Kar-wi (2046, Chungking Express), the films originating from Southeast Asia over the last decade have been incredibly innovative and artistically powerful.
Hong Sang-soo’s ascendancy to placement in this ever-expanding circle of great filmmakers seems a bit premature. Much like a promising young recruit feverishly swept away from college and improperly ushered into the professional ranks of sport, Hong’s reputation has been built more on hype than on the substance of his films. One feels that his skill as a filmmaker has yet to meet up to the promise of his talent. The mannered formalism and ruminative lyricism with which his early films have hinted at still, ultimately, remains unrealized.
Woman is the Future of Man may not be Hong Sang-soo’s masterpiece but it is a promising step on the path to a rich and talented career.