Gamhee (Kim Minhee) hasn’t been away from her husband for a single day in five years. We know this fact well because she repeats it three times. The eerie thing is how she repeats it in almost exactly the same way, like its a line she has rehearsed. Hong Sangsoo is a director who likes to repeat himself, The Woman Who Ran using the power of repetition as a means to comment on the experience of women. A triptych of enigmatic catch-up conversations, his latest is a delightfully slippery feminist work.
Every scene works almost the same way. Gamhee meets a female acquaintance, they talk, a man arrives, then the scene ends. Taken alone they are satisfying short stories; thrown together and they refract one another, like looking at the same sculpture from three different angles.
One cannot say for certain if it all takes place on the same day. Likewise, the titular woman could refer to any of the four major female characters. The first of them is Youngsoon (Seo Younghwa) who has bought herself an apartment with the money from her divorce. She lives with Youngji (Lee Eunmi), who grills the two women a slab of meat for dinner. There is an implication that Youngsoon and Youngji are a lesbian couple, but this isn’t commented on. Nonetheless, they show Gamhee a different life from living with her husband, who she loves “a little each day” but doesn’t seem to inspire her with any enthusiasm. The next woman, the artist Suyoung (Song Seonmi), is less domestically inclined, telling Gamhee about a bar nearby where she is slowly becoming a regular.
Both independent women are interrupted by men; first played for laughs, the second for drama, displaying how the overbearance of men, ranges from a minor inconvenience to genuine oppression. The third story — which I won’t describe here — puts the whole thing into perspective by bringing back a painful memory from the past. The beautiful Kim Minhee is excellent during all three stories. She excels at playing women running away from something, imbuing ostensibly ambiguous characters with real emotion. Hong Sangsoo’s perpetual muse, she captures the spirit of his works with perfect precision; turning what could be a soggy mess into a film with real things to say.
The blocking and camerawork are uniformly excellent, Hong able to say a lot through subtle changes in positioning and his characteristic zooms. The dialogue is equally satisfying, filled with the paradoxical, nonsensical flow of real chat, as well as the subtle way a banal conversation can suddenly reveal something much more meaningful.
Hardcore Hong Sangsoo fans will be pleased: during my screening there was whooping and clapping during a particularly masterful feline-focused scene, a testament to the extraordinary reactions the Rohmeresque filmmaker provokes in certain cinephiles. Casual viewers will be more perplexed. Hong is really one of those directors where the more you watch the more you enjoy, each film another entry into of the eternal conversation he seems to be having with himself.
He knows that his work is repetitive. There is even a sardonic element of self-criticism, with one of Gamhee’s acquaintances criticizing a writer and television personality who always says the same thing. After all, if you keep on saying the same thing over and over, “how can you be sincere?” But sincerity need not be totally serious. After all, in the world of Hong’s films — which gently flow between melancholy and joy like waves — the most serious messages can hide behind the most playful of forms. This man is a treasure.