The time was right. Not having seen a Hong Sang-soo film for a few years – and he himself has had an unusual two-year break since his last one – I was perhaps ready to reacquaint myself with his work. It was a cold misty winter’s afternoon. I had just taken a rare day off from work and had finished the Christmas card admin. Out of nowhere, I was offered a screener of Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman who Ran (2020), and it was just what I wanted – even though I confess to not being a huge Hong fan.
The 77 minutes passed quickly, and I definitely enjoyed The Woman who Ran more than many of Hong Sang-soo’s other recent movies. Maybe I’ve just got used to the Hong formula: minimalist style, long conversations, an episodic structure with repetitions, variations and cross-references between them. This time I didn’t try to overthink whether those echoes and variations signified anything deep or meaningful. Instead, I simply enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversations: it was somehow comforting just to listen in on these characters and hear about their lives.
What makes this film different from many other Hong movies? The pleasure is that it’s female-centric. Obviously, Kim Min-hee is at the heart of the movie, and when her husband goes away on a business trip she seizes the opportunity to catch up with two long-standing girl friends for some company. She also unexpectedly bumps into an another friend from the past who many years ago poached Gam-hee’s then boyfriend.
Each of the three segments features conversations over food or drink. Like many Hong Sang-soo movies, some parts of the conversations carry the plot forward or tell us something about the characters, while others are inconclusive frolics – such as when feasting on some tasty barbecued beef one of the characters engages in a bizarre speculation about the consciousness of cows, before they all vow to become vegetarians.
But unlike many previous Hong films, there’s not a bottle of soju in sight. And the male characters (one in each segment – though is that a guest appearance from Darcy Paquet sitting in the front row of the near-empty cinema?) are shown largely from the back, are largely sober, and intrude on the scene mainly to disrupt and annoy the female leads rather than play any central role. There’s the ailurophobic next-door neighbour trying to persuade one of the women to stop feeding the local stray cat (which, amazingly, co-operates splendidly with the camera as if trained for the role); there’s the one-night stand who now returns, pleadingly, for more action; and there’s Gam-hee’s former boyfriend, now a reasonably successful if insincere and frankly rather tedious novelist, who arrogantly thinks Gam-hee came to the arts cafe specifically to see him. All three men, perhaps, are like the rooster from the first segment of the film, who pecks his hens’ necks when he mounts them, leaving bare patches bereft of feathers. The men in this movie are irritating but peripheral.
Certainly the women in this movie are self assured enough not to need their men. The first friend that Gam-hee visits, Young-soon (played by Hong Sang-soo regular Seo Younghwa), is divorced, and the divorce settlement enabled her to afford a nice apartment with mountain views, living next door to the hen coop; she’s happy tending her vegetables and chatting to the girl next door, whose mother ran out on her father (the only woman on the movie who is said to have run). The second, Soo-young (another Hong regular, Song Seon-mi) seems to be enjoying life as a singleton – though she regrets the one-night stand with the younger man and instead has designs on the architect living upstairs. The third woman, Woojin (Kim Saebyuk) is now married to Gam-hee’s ex-boyfriend, but is beginning to find him a bit of a bore.
In fact it is just Gam-hee herself who seems to have rather an ambivalent relationship with her husband. In the five years they have been married they have never spent a day apart – his choice rather than hers (“He says ‘people in love should always stick to each other’,” Gam-hee tells each of her three friends) though she seems to have acquiesced in the situation. But when one of her friends asks her if she loves her husband, she has trouble answering: she seems to have minimal expectations of her relationship. Maybe, as she enjoys her couple of days of freedom, she is herself about to take flight.
Altogether, apart from the slight puzzle of title, this is one of Hong’s less enigmatic movies. It doesn’t test the patience, it’s accessible and easy-going, and it made me want to watch it again.
The Woman Who Ran (도망친 여자) is one of Sight and Sound’s top 50 films of 2020, and one of Cahiers du Cinéma’s top 10 of the year. It is at the Curzon Bloomsbury and Curzon Home Cinema now, and airs on MUBI from 20 December. It screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2020.