Berlin Review: Hong Sangsoo’s Brief ‘Introduction’ Connects When Least Expected
South Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo has been a particular favorite at the Berlin Film Festival for quite some time — he won the Best Director prize there last year for The Woman Who Ran — and he’s back again this year with another competition entry, Introduction. A study of indecision and uncertainty in the realms of family, career and amour, this very brief (just 66 minutes) and visually appealing black-and-white drama can be a bit confusing, as the writer-director makes little effort to define the characters and their relationships with one another. But it also contains some vibrant intimate scenes, as the principals feel their way toward life-defining emotions and decisions.
This is the prolific writer-director’s 25th film in as many years, and if it’s sometimes difficult to remember which is which, it’s for a good reason; they’re all talky affairs in which mostly young people go on and on about their relationships and/or situations in life, usually in urban environments and often on or near a beach. Introduction is no exception.
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As usual, there is little plot per se, but rather a procession of scenes that cumulatively inform and illuminate the states-of-mind and decision-making of the main characters. Some scenes are better than others. Exposition doesn’t mean much to this filmmaker, so sometimes it’s nearly impossible to be certain where and even who the characters are. The talk is often interesting and emotionally revealing, and occasionally rather lame, even aggravating. Mostly, the characters are just trying to find and define themselves. (Almost everyone smokes. A lot. You’d think we were still in the 1960s. There are good reasons Hong is frequently compared to the late French master of such cinema, Eric Rohmer.)
Youngho (Shin Seokho) is just such an uncertain young man. He goes to see his physician father, but the latter is too busy with a famous actor patient to see his kid. The young fellow’s girlfriend Juwan (Park Miso) is in early-adult flux, thinking she might like to study fashion in Berlin. She does so, and Youngho follows her there to make sure she comes back. By the time the director is done with all these preliminaries he’s half-way through his movie. Maybe money was tight or ideas were.
The setting for the second half is rather meatier, partly because it’s largely set at a coastal resort restaurant in off-season; it’s chilly out, and no one’s there except for Youngho’s mother, her old friend who’s an “acting legend,” Youngho and his buddy. The food is said to be great. The actor promises not to get drunk despite the fact that he already is, and he makes the younger men vow to stay sober even as he plies them with liquor.
Although he’s constantly praised for his looks and acting potential, Youngho explains to the table that he’s quitting acting because his last stage role involved an extensive kissing scene that he couldn’t go through with because it would be “morally wrong” since he had a serious girlfriend. This attitude unleashes a tirade from the old actor and exasperates Youngho’s mother, who dismisses her son by saying, “He’s so sensitive.”
A final scene goes deeper, as Youngho and a friend go across the road to the beach and encounter a young woman heading out into the waves. Asked what she’s doing, she replies, “Trying to die, maybe,” adding that her boyfriend just broke up with her. Youngho himself then plunges into the frigid waters, and the last shot echoes nothing so much as the freeze-frame finale of The 400 Blows.
Hong writes collections of pithy little scenes like these more than elaborately worked-out dramas in the theatrical tradition, brief dialogue exchanges that often touch on critical emotions but leave a good deal unsaid. He clearly believes in less is more, except in the number of films he makes. At his best, here and elsewhere, he’s capable of touching little nerve endings in a way that’s often fleeting and occasionally feels perfunctory but that nonetheless connects, often when least expected.
Even if Introduction feels like just that, an appetizer, it still offers up more to chew on than some full meals.
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