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Matt Turner

@mattlloydturner

Introduction – first-look review

A young man travels to Berlin in the latest lilting relationship drama from South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo.

Hong Sang-soo has been creating films for a quarter of a century now. He made his debut aged 35 with The Day a Pig Fell into the Well in 1996 and has since directed a further 24 features. Though all his films are somewhat alike – intimate dramas which see rotating sets of characters interacting within closed interiors or while walking through public space – his style has evolved over time.

His earliest films were his most volatile, featuring lots of sex, drinking, quarrelling and ample male angst. More recently he has mellowed somewhat, and many of the films he has made since 2011’s The Day He Arrives are defined by their formal experimentations, involving puzzle-like structures and stories which shift, reset, or repeat. From 2017’s Claire’s Camera onwards, Hong started to simplify his films, creating novella-like works with more straightforward scenarios and shorter run-times. This most recent suite of films are some of his most satisfying, and this is true of Introduction too.

The film centres on an uncertain relationship between young couple Youngho (Shin Seokho) and Juwon (Park Miso), outlined over three acts in which a number of other characters gravitate around them. In the first section, Youngho is called to his doctor father’s (Kim Youngho) clinic in Seoul, only to be left sitting liminally in the waiting room. In the second, he flies to Berlin to surprise Juwon, who is studying there and living with Kim Min-hee’s unnamed character, well cast as a too-cool-for-school artist who sports a top-knot and round spectacles.

In the third, seaside-set section, it is Youngho’s mother (Cho Yunhee) who beckons him, having him meet with a boozy veteran actor (Ki Joobong) who berates Youngho for abandoning his career in acting. In each scenario, Youngho travels somewhere purposively, only to engage in conversations that end in ambiguity. Each sequence doesn’t so much resolve as dissipate, dissolving into slow fades-to-black that land on end-notes which are enticingly inconclusive.

Other than these fade-outs, Hong’s camera is not showy; the director mostly uses static shots or makes minor movements, only very infrequently employing those signature zooms that he finds so irresistible. Shot in a stark black-and-white, the overall feel of the film is cool, even chilly, full of snowy white skies and wintry fabrics, favouring remoteness in its emotional temperament.

The characters are convivial – especially Youngho, who is played by Seokho as boyish and buoyant – but they never quite connect, remaining distanced from each other both literally (as in Youngho’s failure to ever actually meet his father, or his unexplained breakup with Juwon) or metaphorically (as in the geographic distance of the couple across countries, or the emotional estrangement that occurs between father and son).

The film’s most dramatic scene comes, unsurprisingly, after a few too many shots of soju. Youngho aggravates the famous actor by telling him he quit acting due to a discomfort with its fundamental dishonesty. After revealing that he refused to do a kissing scene because he felt it would be unfaithful to his partner, Youngho professes that, “When a man embraces a woman, that act contains a certain absolute meaning.” The actor explodes, screaming, “Whether sincere or playing around, it is all love!”

It’s not clear with which position Hong’s own opinion of acting aligns, but the director keeps creating consistently fascinating explorations of the tensions that this disagreement evokes. In each mesmerically simple new film, he pushes his characters into quiet collisions with each other in order to see what meanings these acts can contain.

Published 2 Mar 2021

Tags: Berlin Film Festival Hong Sang-soo

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