Hong’s fifth feature is all about seeing what lies beneath the surface: life is empty and unfulfilling, but his film lets us peel the layers to reach into something deeper—and something elusive.
Dir. Hong Sang-soo
2004 | South Korea | Drama | 88 mins | 1.85: 1 | Korean
R21 (passed clean) for sexual content, nudity and mature theme
Cast: Yu Ji-tae, Kim Tae-woo, Sung Hyun-Ah
Plot: Two college friends get together and reminisce on the woman they both fell in love with at different times in their past, and are thus propelled to find her.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
International Sales: Unikorea (Asia) / MK2 (Rest of the World)
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on DVD – first published 26 Apr 2017)
Hong Sang-soo’s fifth feature came at a time when he was beginning to catch the attention of cinephiles internationally. Those who had discovered Hong as a filmmaker of great promise years before with films like The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996) and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) might have felt that they were losing a best kept secret.
In competition at Cannes, and for the first time in the prestigious Palme d’Or category, Woman Is the Future of Man is an attempt to be more accessible, while retaining the freewheeling if tragicomic screenwriting that would inform most of his films. It has been a quality that has served Hong well in his prolific body of work, which like the films of Ozu, Rohmer, and to an extent, Antonioni, recycle thematic concerns in infinitely refreshing ways.
In this film, we are privy to the conversations of two men, one a struggling filmmaking graduate who’s back from the States, and another a professor who teaches art at what he thinks is the best university in Korea. It is a reunion of sorts after many years, and what seems like the typical conversational humdrum between friends slowly reveals memories and past connections.
Hong’s skill is in caressing us to peel the hidden layers in both characters’ personal and shared histories, which not only tell us more about the men’s personalities, but allow us to reach into something deeper—and something elusive—about the existential crisis of masculinity and male interdependence (on women).
The two buddies share a romance with the same woman before, at different times and contexts. Over chicken, beer and cigarettes (always the case for Hong’s characters), and set against the backdrop of the wintry cold, they decide to make a trip to visit her. The film gives us flashbacks of their separate sexual encounters with the woman, which Hong shows us in explicit detail, with the natural eroticism neutered by its deadpan execution.
Woman Is the Future of Man moves along leisurely, like a casual stroll in the park, but there’s enough stimulating material to last the course. Much of the film is also emotionally ambiguous, and there’s no closure for anyone. Life is empty and unfulfilling—is happiness a myth?