Hong Sang-Soo is one of Korea’s most celebrated filmmakers –abroad. Amongst local audiences, he remains surprisingly unknown. His films have consistently failed at the box office, and his last effort didn’t even get a wide-release despite boasting a cast with some of the country’s biggest stars.
The director’s lack of mainstream appeal can be attributed to the arduous nature of his work. All of his films are fairly intricate puzzles, and fitting the pieces together demands rigorous concentration. With Hong, everything is always understated, and “The Power of Kangwon Province” is no exception.
The film follows two seemingly unrelated characters on separate trips to the popular travel destination referred to in the title. Ji-Sook (Oh Yun-Hong) gets involved with an older married man, but ultimately finds the short-lived affair unrewarding and returns home. Sang-Kwon (Baek Jong-Hak) heads to the mountains to escape the humdrum of domestic life, and winds up in bed with a prostitute. In both segments, there’s an underlining feeling that something else is going on, and in the end, the audience finds out the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Like many Koreans who visit Kangwon Province, Ji-Sook and Sang-Kwon are really there to forget their ex-lovers, but they continuously find themselves drawn back into their past.
Unlike most movies with convoluted plot lines, many important details aren’t dwelled upon for long, and to make
matters even more confusing, a lot of the connections are left up to the audience to figure out. And so, much of what’s actually unfolding can easily elude an absentminded viewer. However, those with the patience and attention span to keep up with the film will find that its subtlety pays off.
For all its attempts to link the two stories, “Kangwon Province” is much more intent on showing the disconnect that tears its protagonists apart. Thus, it repeats what every Hong movie says: that people are so hopelessly alienated from one another they’re doomed to wander the Earth alone. When the characters do come together, it’s more often out of desperation and ennui than heartfelt emotion, creating an ironic blend of intimacy and estrangement in one single moment. The director captures this odd situation best in the wonderfully awkward sex scenes. The act of making love is completely stripped of all its romance, and what’s meant to be a warm and passionate encounter comes off as removed.
In “Kangwon Province,” Hong embraces his bleak outlook on human relationships more than ever. The absence of his usual comic relief, coupled with the sober tone and slow-moving pace, shows the filmmaker at his least playful. And while it may be his most articulate movie, it’s definitely a bitter pill to swallow. “Woman on the Beach” (2006) makes for a much breezier introduction to Korea’s most underrated auteur.
Jacob can be reached through his blog at: www. filminbusan.wordpress.com