Friday, October 10, 2014

Jayuui Eondeok (Hill of Freedom), after two viewings

I wish I could find a good discussion group for Hong Sang-soo's Jayuui Eondeok (Hill of Freedom). I've seen the film twice and suspect that there's still a significant amount of resonant detail I haven't seized upon yet.  It's Hong's nature to throw undigested material pell-mell into the crannies of his movies: he's not interested in integrating it into a schema (in fact, the idea would surely repel him), but the impact of his films lies in the wash of dissonance created by this material, a dissonance that belies the light comedy of the films' surface structure.

The first layer of Hill of Freedom is a puzzle, but not a difficult one.  The story of the ill-planned visit to Seoul by Japanese Mori (Ryô Kase) is told via a bundle of letters that he sent to his romantic object Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), who was out of town while Mori was searching for her.  Before she reads the letters, she drops them, assembling them in the wrong order and losing one page.  Thus the story is told with a jumbled chronology that recalls Resnais's Je t'aime, je t'aime.  At film's end, Kwon finishes the letters and finds Mori on the eve of his return to Japan.  Mori's subsequent narration announces a happy ending, with Kwon moving to Japan with him and the couple having two children.

The events of Mori's stay are, typically for Hong, staged as awkward comedy: a series of encounters that are at best failed connections papered over with good will, and at worst open warfare, with the most notable of the encounters being Mori's affair with the friendly waitress Young-sun (Moon So-ri, wonderfully dotty).  We see almost nothing here of Hong's usual device of giving alternate, incompatible versions of the same event.  The only instance of this familiar gambit that I noticed is not very conspicuous: on two occasions, Mori's outings with his landlord's nephew Sang-won (Kim Eui-sung) are narrated in his letters to Kwon with the same language: "Someone took me to..."  There is a bare suggestion in this language that each of these outings might be the first time that Mori and Sang-won went out together, or at least the first time that Mori wrote about it.  Otherwise, however, it seems possible to assemble all Mori's Seoul experiences (including these outings) into a fairly coherent timeline.  On first viewing, I wondered why Hong had abandoned his difficult-to-process penchant for alternate realities and replaced it with the relatively straightforward modernist tactic of jumbled storytelling.

Everything that I've described so far seems to me merely the film's setup.  If this were all we received, Hill of Freedom would be as slight as many reviewers find it.

But the detail that Hong creates underneath the lightly borne surface structure is amorphous and bottomless.  What makes him a great filmmaker is the effortlessness with which he generates this behavioral material: clearly this is a case of the artist living within the act of creation, with no sense of labor in the way he fills his canvas with disorienting details.

Because Hong has no desire to shape this material into a unity, an unordered list of dissonant elements feels like as good an approach as any:

1) The film's happy ending depends on Kwon having recovered her health in the mountains.  She reports having been cured in her conversation with Young-sun at the Hill of Freedom cafe; and Mori repeats this assertion in his closing fairytale narration.  (Both accounts put emphasis on the weird element of the "doctor who is also a preacher" who oversaw Kwon's mountain cure - no other mention of this fellow.)  But Kwon is clearly still sick.  Her fainting spell on the steps of the language center was responsible for the jumbling of the letters; while she is reading the letters at the cafe, she coughs unsettlingly.

2) Mori's affair with Young-sun is not signposted as a transient event or as a substitute for the desired union with Kwon, and therefore unbalances the emotional progression of the story.  Both of Mori and Young-sun's conversations in bed gravitate toward confessions of love and expressions of desire; Mori does experience a "What have I done?" moment after his first night with Young-sun, but this mood seems to have passed by the time of their next meeting.  The affair as a whole feels more like a beginning of a substantial, if questionable, romance than it does like a dalliance.  (The seven or so different scenes chronicling the Mori/Young-sun relationship are particularly easy to reassemble into a timeline, with fairly clear cues to the sequencing.)

2a) And of course the idea that Mori would write about this affair to Kwon, the object of his desire, is very strange, and casts doubt on the extent to which we can regard the body of the film as visualizations of his letters.  In this light, recall that the last-act meeting between Kwon and Young-sun at the cafe plays out without apparent uneasiness or any sign that the two women know they have been drafted into a love triangle.

3) Mori is beset by a mysterious lethargy in Seoul that makes him sleep the days away and suggests a dissolution of character.  The narration refers to his dreams a few times, but, unless I've missed a cue, none of the incident in his Seoul life is clearly marked as being more dreamlike than the rest, or is impossible to piece into a plausible sequence of events.  The image of Mori waking up after the fairytale conclusion of his love story might suggest that the happy ending is a dream; but, given that the subsequent scene fits neatly into an empty slot in the Mori/Young-sun timeline, it's just as likely that Hong is here depicting the content of the letter that Kwon lost on the stairs, or that Hong simply wants to disorient us by resuming the slicing and dicing of the narrative after the temporal juggling is supposed to be over.

4) Though Mori and Young-sun see only progress in their love affair, Hong bizarrely contrives that the final scene of the letter-driven section of the narrative shows Mori accidentally locking himself in Young-sun's bathroom, waiting despondently for help to arrive.  Such moments made me speculate that the film could be Mori's romantic fantasy punctuated by momentary intrusions of the grim reality of his real life, in the manner of Point Blank.

5) The most startling moment in the film is Mori's appearance with a bruised face in the last guest house scene, as Kwon waits in his room for their long-postponed reunion.  The bruise is explained in dialogue - Mori has just had an altercation with Young-sun's boyfriend Gwang-hyeon (Lee Min-woo) - but hangs over the ending as a Buñuelian manifestation of chaos, much like the boar in the window at the end of Night and Day.  Because no other event in the reassembled timeline is as conspicuously absent as this fight, it presents itself as yet another candidate for the content of the lost letter.

In summary, a different film lurks beneath the ragtag fairytale story that we piece together.  And this not-very-hidden under-film speaks to us, obscurely to be sure, of sickness, violence, dissolution, and bad decisions.

Hong is frequently, and I think reasonably, compared to Rohmer, and Mori's sleepiness and its relation to our spectatorship forges an especially strong link between Hill of Freedom and Rohmer's La femme de l'aviateur (The Aviator's Wife).  If one were to synopsize the similarities and differences in the way the two filmmakers use narrative, one might say that Rohmer creates a contrast between his characters' ability to construct clean conceptual frameworks, and the entropic reality that is always too multifarious to support the narratives that the characters create.  Whereas it is Hong himself, not his characters, who sets up the rickety infrastructure of a decipherable world, all the while feeding in a darkness and surrealism that makes modernist art impossible to sustain.


alua said...

The biggest question I currently have is why Kwon is wearing a wedding ring throughout the entire film. It raises all kinds of questions, especially about the supposed happy-ever-after with Mori.

Dan Sallitt said...

I didn't even notice that! Maybe she married that doctor/preacher! In any case, the happy-ever-after is certainly not supported by all data in the film. One might say that Hong has found a new way to insert his "alternate realities" into a movie, by having the story pull apart into strands that have some overlap and some contradiction.

alua said...

Yes, I think no one's picked up on this, at least not in any of the reviews I have seen. I noticed it during the screening, I checked screenshots later and one of the film clips that's available shows it clearly too.

Here's one of the screenshots with thering.

Lee said...

I asked you about this via Twitter, but I thought I'd come here and expand a little bit on certain thoughts.

I'm not sure how exactly I feel about the book on time and Mori's description of its meaning. One might claim this stuff--along with the the name of the dog, Dream--feels too literal, too obviously Theme. Does it do more than underline the almost imprisoning effect displaced time--prompted by the mixed-up letters--has on Mori and the people who come in and out of his life? I'm still figuring out what to get out all of the dream stuff. Dreaming and sleeping are recurring things in Hong, so this is a bit of an intertextual thing as well. Anyways, I'd like to know what any of you think of these devices in HILL OF FREEDOM.

Dan Sallitt said...

My feeling is that all this stuff is really a form of humor, in that it has vague portent but isn't really where the film is heading. Even the mixed-up letter pages qualify for me as a kind of surrealist joke, almost like Bunuel's fake cause-and-effect intertitles in Un Chien Andalou. I'd say the film evokes a sort of existential chaos that goes beyond dream or waking, and even beyond the effects of time.