Hong Sang-Soo’s filmography has been one of obsessive reconfiguration of the same basic elements, and one in which the question of diminishing returns is always a concern. For this viewer, it’s a testament to the rewards of his approach that certain films of his feel incredibly rich and mysterious, while others flat and flavourless, despite their essential sameness. When they fall into the former category, however, I’m forced to reevaluate the ones in the latter, and such is the case with Hill of Freedom – one of the top-tier films of his. As such, it hasn’t disappeared into the ether of my Hong-memory since seeing it, and one of the few I’ve been compelled to revisit, instead of waiting for the next film of his to roll around.
As far its premise and milieu go, it’s business as usual for Hong: Mori (Ryo Kase) returns to a small town to reunite with Kwon (Seo Younghwa), the woman he still pines for, and finds himself running into friends and acquaintances both old and new. The variations in this field of sameness are that Mori is Japanese, with a limited understanding of Korean, and speaks with the locals in broken English. The other variation is the film’s structural conceit; we see his misadventures as a series of letters to Kwon, who drops them on a staircase and has to read them out of order.
This storytelling device turns out to be, on one level, a shaggy-dog joke, as Kwon remains a largely static character throughout, with the jumbled chronology only accentuating the degree of his ennui to us. At one point, a sequence shows Kwon explaining a book he’s reading to a friend, on the subject of time and how we’re trained to experience it linearly rather than past, present and future occurring simultaneously. As a self-reflexive nod to the film’s own structure, it’s a rather thudding moment, but as an instruction of how to read the Hong Sang-Soo corpus – as one long film, albeit with numerous modulations – it’s instructive.
Hong has among the most plainspoken visual sensibilities of any major auteur, and each successive film sees him getting increasingly relaxed. His camera usually stays static during long dialogue scenes, punctuated by deliberately jarring zooms that distract and distance at seemingly arbitrary moments, giving the impression of surveillance over his characters.1 As in his prior film, Our Sunhi (2013), a set of descriptors are repeated mantra-like throughout; there, it was the description of the titular character as being ‘reserved, smart and with artistic sense’ by the men wooing her. In Hill, with its language barrier being a large source of the film’s comedy, an innkeeper repeatedly characterises the Japanese as being ‘clean, polite and reserved’ in her limited English.2
Limitations, are in a sense, Hong Sang-Soo’s grand subject; the limitations of language and communication, and intellectual and emotional limitations, addressed across a filmography that can frequently seem as if Hong has painted himself into a corner. And yet, befitting it’s title, Hill of Freedom turns out to be a film of tremendous narrative freedom, starting as a puzzle with a clear schema and eventually diverting from it, with dream sequences subtly integrated, and one of tremendous mystery in the sense that it’s never clear as to just whose subjectivity we’re privy to. Alarming details gradually litter the peripheries of the film, troubling the gentle comedy of its surface; the illness that Kwon was away from town trying to cure, coupled with the overly fantasy-like happy union for both Kwon and Mori suggests not just a bittersweet fantasy coda, but also a deeply cynical outcome for both characters.
After two viewings, it’s still not clear to me how much of Hill of Freedom’s ambiguity is in Hong’s control, and yet it’s questions like this that make the film such a vortex, despite how innocuous it seems on the surface. It’s a deeply satisfying puzzle without a solution, and for my money, the richest and funniest piece yet in the ongoing puzzle that is Hong Sang-Soo.
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