In her first feature, Passerby #3 (2010), Shin Su-won looked at the life of a woman who left her job to try to become a film director. In her latest, she returns to a similar movie-making theme. Hommage is about a middle-aged movie director, Ji-wan, whose films have never been much of a success. She is given the opportunity of a poorly paid assignment in the restoration of the classic 1962 movie A Woman Judge, directed by female director Hong Eun-won. The project evolves into something of a cinematic detective story as the modern-day director tries to track down people involved in the 1962 film in order to help fill gaps in the script, soundtrack and the print itself.
The lead actor is Lee Jung-eun, who has recently become something of a hot property due to her role as the housekeeper in Parasite. This is her first lead role and she is perfectly cast, demanding the viewer’s attention throughout the movie with her well-judged downbeat style.
Shin’s movie is a tribute to many people. First, to the work of the Korean Film Archive in restoring and preserving Korea’s cinematic legacy. More importantly it is an homage to women in the film industry, recognising the barriers they have encountered over the years in a male-donominated world. More broadly, it is a tribute to the struggles women face in balancing obligations to family with forging a path in their chosen career in whatever industry. And finally, as made clear in the Q&A following the screening, it is a plea for the recognition of the contribution made by women and a lament that typically our capitalist society loses interest in women in their late middle-age, pushing them aside to make way for men or for younger, more attractive women.
Early in the movie the audience learns that, mirroring Ji-wan’s creative decline as a director, her fertility as a woman is coming to an end. Her boisterous, poetry-loving son (played by Tang Jun-sang, who came to prominence in Crash Landing on You) uses her as a comfortable sofa and asks why she’s so sweaty. She responds in a deadpan way, as she works on her next scenario and discusses the fine detail of grammar with her son, that it’s the menopause.
Her relationship with her son seems strong, though she constantly tries to encourage him to be less reliant on her. When it comes to her husband (played by Hong Sang-soo regular Kwon Hae-hyo) things are on less of a sure footing. He makes no contribution to the household chores, but seems to want Ji-wan both to be a “normal” housewife and to bring in more money from her career in the movie industry. In a tragi-comic way Ji-wan initiates a “separation” (while still living in the same apartment) when he decides to stop contributing from his earnings.
The movie draws deliberate parallels between the lives of Ji-wan and director Hong of the 1962 movie: both are of a similar age, the career of both ended after three movies1, both struggle with the development of their scenarios, and the shadow of the early pioneer seems literally to haunt the present film.
Film studies specialists will want to compare and contrast the career trajectory of Ji-wan in this movie, as she balances work and family priorities, with that of leading ladies in other Korean movies over the past sixty years. Film historians will revel in the details of the reconstruction work done by Ji-wan and weep at the work of the censors and the ignominious fate of old prints. Non-specialist viewers will simply enjoy the different layers in storytelling and the Russian-doll scenario: after all, this is a film by a female director about a female director working on a reconstruction of a film by a pioneering female director about a pioneering woman in a man’s world… Viewers will also enjoy the “reconstructed” scene from A Woman Judge which brings together themes of female self-confidence and ease in a solitary and idyllic setting, which leaves us questioning whether such perfection can be achieved in the real world.
Shin Su-won is becoming something of a fixture at LEAFF. Her three most recent movies have all featured in LEAFF’s programming, starting with Glass Garden in 2018 and Light for the Youth in 2020. Thanks to diary conflicts I managed to miss both of those screenings. But based on this year’s Hommage I’ll be sure to search them out.
Hommage screened in the Official Selection strand of the London East Asia Film Festival 2022 on 21 October
Shin Su-won (신수원): Hommage (오마주, 2021)
- Shin Su-won explained in the Q&A that the storyline of Hommage is around 20% factual. As an example, Hong Eun-won only made the one movie, not three