It’s among the best movie news of the year that Hong Sangsoo’s most recent film, “in water,” is almost entirely out of focus. Not by mistake—the movie, which premièred at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, is, according to its distributor, Hong’s “most overtly experimental work to date.” This drastic divergence from his usual practice is welcome because his most recent films have felt as if they were reaching the end of a cycle, and even betrayed a sense of uncertainty and exhaustion.
Hong is an extraordinarily prolific filmmaker. He has been able to shoot twenty-one features since 2009 because he’s got a system of his own making. He relies and reflects on this system in “Walk Up,” which played the New York Film Festival last fall and opens on Friday. He works on a very low budget with a small crew. (For “Walk Up,” Hong directed, produced, wrote, and did the cinematography, editing, and music; he employed a sound recordist and an assistant; Kim Min-hee, an actress who’s also his partner, is the production manager.) He uses small casts (here, six actors), and he maximizes his slender range of locations and short number of shoot days by filming long scenes in lengthy and uninterrupted takes, in which the actors have guidelines but largely improvise the line-by-line specifics of their dialogue. But just as filmmakers can get stuck in the habits of studio productions, they can also get accustomed to systems of their own, and their films may well reflect that sense of routine.
The movie before “Walk Up” was “The Novelist’s Film,” in which Hong fantasizes about pushing his methods to new extremes. It’s a film about a novelist who has stopped writing and is inspired by an encounter with an idle actress to make a movie—one that turns out to be both amateurish and striking, a reproach and a cautionary example to professional filmmakers. The impasse implied in “The Novelist’s Film” gets a strenuous and sardonic dramatic workout in “Walk Up,” which is both a work of art and a theory of art—or, rather, several theories, which emerge in the course of the discussions between characters who are themselves artists or former artists.
Much of “Walk Up” involves creative exhaustion: an artistic ambition that couldn’t be fulfilled, a start that couldn’t be sustained. Like many of Hong’s films, this one is centered on a filmmaker, named Byungsoo (Kwon Hae-hyo), a famous middle-aged director who, at the start of the action, is getting ready to make a movie. But his family life is the mainspring of the drama. He has been somewhat estranged from his twentyish daughter, Jeongsu (Park Miso), since the breakup of his marriage to her mother. Jeongsu is herself a bit adrift; she’s studied visual arts but, having lost confidence in her abilities, wants to switch to interior design. In order to help her, Byungsoo brings her to meet his longtime friend, called only Ms. Kim (Lee Hye-young), a highly regarded interior designer with whom he’s long been out of touch. As in most of Hong’s films, the simple premise gives rise to jolting intricacies of form; in “Walk Up,” those intricacies are rooted in the eponymous setting, Ms. Kim’s four-story building, in which she spends much of her working days while also renting out several floors to tenants and to a tiny restaurant.
Jeongsu speaks frankly with Ms. Kim about her motives—ulterior ones—for entering the field of interior design; she thinks that, unlike art, it will help her meet people and make money. Ms. Kim, an artist to the core, talks of her own beginnings in the field, which came about by chance, when she was praised for the distinctive style of her home and a magazine ran photos of it. (As she explains to Jeongsu, “Actually, there’s nothing to learn. If you have the sense, you can do it.”) Under the breezy encouragement resides a stern artistic morality: there’s no stepwise or educational path to artistic success, because one either has the sense and the talent, or one doesn’t.
The cinema, however, is as much a business as it is an art. Its burdensome contingencies come under scrutiny in “Walk Up,” and these contemplations are baked deeply into the film’s form. The movie’s framework consists of four chapters corresponding to the building’s four floors, rising from street level to the top, each associated with a new or newly fostered relationship (whether friendly or romantic), and each separated by a leap in time so abrupt and so mysterious that it suggests alternative realities, parallel life paths—and that the upward-climbing action is inversely matched by the decline of Byungsoo’s career.
The cinema-centricity of “Walk Up”—its attention to those contingencies and their deforming effect on what the film presents as a sure directorial sense, akin to Ms. Kim’s design sense—is emblazoned in its longest, boldest, most virtuosic sequence, in the second chapter. After another protracted absence, Byungsoo returns to see Ms. Kim, who brings him up to the second floor, where the chef, a young woman named Sunhee (Song Seon-mi), is sitting alone, with no customers. Sunhee (herself a former artist) turns out to be a big fan of Byungsoo, and his films are the springboard to their extensive conversation. Their talk bursts onto the screen in two extended takes, one of more than fourteen minutes. (Sunhee’s praise of Byungsoo’s movies for their copious dialogue plays like a self-justifying allusion to Hong’s own work.) The discussion involves Byungsoo’s scathing view of the movie business at large. As he speaks of his cherished project—which was about to start shooting—falling through, he channels his frustration into a general lament for the state of filmmaking over all: the great expense that it requires, the resulting inability of filmmakers to work daily and independently like painters, the shortsightedness of industry executives who think only of profits. Though Ms. Kim isn’t the central character of “Walk Up,” she’s its crucially inspiring one. (Lee, who plays her, is herself a key part of Hong’s cinematic universe. A celebrated actress decades ago, she’d largely withdrawn from the business, and her big-screen return, in his 2021 film “In Front of Your Face,” gave his work a new dramatic jolt.) Ms. Kim is an artist but a domestic one, and doubly so, because her work involves homes and she does it at the building (in its basement). That home practice represents a kind of ideal, the unity of art and life. Precisely because the space is both her work studio and a small business (as a landlady), her life impinges uneasily on her art in the form of trivial necessities, ones that don’t have the near-tragic profile of public power that marks the demands of film-industry potentates on their artists.
“Walk Up” could be labelled “Not a Home Movie” and could be the twentieth in a series of that title, dating back to 2009 and the first of Hong’s self-produced, low-budget productions. Even though his films’ subjects and methods are intertwined with his personal life, he is very much a part of a filmmaking system, albeit one of his own making. For that matter, his films’ artifices of form replicate his production system in the body of his work and create a necessary sense of distance—not from the viewer but from himself. His infrastructure may be tiny, but it nonetheless brings his work out of the home and links it with the movie world, with the world at large, and that system stands as a bulwark against the menace of isolation—personal, artistic, and existential. The only thing that filmmakers like as much as being a part of the film industry is railing against it; that negative energy of struggle is fuel for creativity, and the effort at self-renewal through withdrawal—through the unifying of art and life—is a leap into the void. The ending of “Walk Up” considers that prospect with a muffled howl of sardonic irony; it inclines me to anticipate Hong’s next films with both fascination and trepidation. ♦
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