Our Sunhi (U ri Sunhi)
Korea (2013) Dir. Hong Sang-soo
Film student Sunhi (Jung Yu-mi) wants to continue her studies in America and requires a letter of recommendation from her former film studies teacher, Professor Choi (Kim Sang-joong). Initially he hesitant but Sunhi’s persistence forces Choi to capitulate; however Sunhi only wants an honest appraisal. Sunhi also meets ex-boyfriend Munsu (Lee Sun-kyun) who made a film about their failed relationship, and grouchy filmmaker Jaehak (Jung Jae-young). All three men fall for Sunhi but how much do they really know about her, collectively and individually?
He’s been called the Korean Woody Allen or the Korean Eric Rohmer, which is high praise indeed, but however you wish to try and label him, Indie auteur Hong Sang-soo is certainly a unique and instantly recognisable presence in Korean and world cinema. Hong has made his name with a series of low key, simply made films that explore every day relationships with an extraordinary twist, largely detailed through protracted chat sessions, usually over a drink or ten. Also Hong’s penchant for single take, one shot scenes with the occasional rapid zoom – in and out – has become his trademark, leaving the audience with a clear reminder of whose work they are watching.
So soon after his last film Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, comes this prize winning film Our Sunhi, which earned Hong the Director Prize at the 2013 Locarno film festival. Does this mean Hong has made his magnum opus and is now poised to take global movie scene by storm? Actually no – it just means the judges at Locarno liked this film. The truth is that Our Sunhi is barley any different from Hong’s other films so while we know exactly what we are getting there is also that sense of ennui stemming from this creative inertia. In other words one can literally line this up next to any of his other works and find them all to be quite interchangeable – the only possible exception per se being 2012’s In Another Country.
One development that is noticeable is how the focus has shifted from the male to the female perspective. Usually Hong’s protagonists are men (all film directors or involved in the creative end of the movie business) who are smitten with women who are either with someone else or just out of a relationship. The women are all beguiling but the attention is on the men’s inability to relate to them, woo them or keep them onside. In Another Country saw the women shifted up front, still playing the same bewitching role but this time it is told from their perspective. This was continued in Haewon and now with this film, as Sunhi is now the one casting her spell to get what she wants from her three hapless admirers.
As ever Hong keeps things like story development subtle, but in this case it is a little too subtle. The majority of the “action” for wanting a better term takes place in a restaurant, café or bar where the empty beer bottles pile up, next to the discarded chicken bones as everyone drunkenly lectures everyone else on “digging deep” and doing their best in life. The problem is that these scenes are so drawn out and the slurred dialogue, often shouted, is delivered in painfully considered stages that one finds themselves zoning out and missing the point of the conversation. Since all three men conduct their affairs with Sunhi in this manner, the film has a stultifying feeling of “lather, rinse repeat” about it, making any progress easy to miss – ironic as Jaehak is an insular chap who finds it hard to breakout of his own comfort zone, yet is inspired to by Sunhi.
The eponymous and unlikely femme fatale is a deliberately vague character for the audience – and so it seems her onscreen male admires characters – to get a clear reading on. Superbly essayed by Jung Yu-mi, Sunhi is attractive but not excessively beautiful; she is polite but easily offended; she is not selfish but wants a lot out of other people. It is hard to divine if she is deliberately playing the three men off against each other since they never appear together as a quartet, only in permutations – Jaehak and Munsu, Choi and Munsu, Choi and Jaehak, Sunhi alone with all three. Aside from her deliberately winning Choi over – via drinks of course – to change his “honest” recommendation letter, any other spells cast are purely innocent on Sunhi’s part.
The film concludes with the notion that despite thinking they know Sunhi, none of the men do and as result she herself is probably unaware of who she is, as indicated by how upset she got with Choi’s referral letter. To that end, we have no clear antagonist to speak of – is it Sunhi because of her foibles and unwitting ways of attracting men? Or is it the men who fall so easily for her without knowing why, thus forcing Sunhi to create a different version of herself to suit them? If you are familiar with Hong’s work you’ll not that this is something to figure out for yourself.
Arguably the biggest irony lies in the film’s message of “digging deep” as Hong is guilty of staying rigidly true to his singular modus operandi with no signs of expanding or moving on from it. If he believes in this pearl of wisdom, he’ll break out from the monotony and try something fresh and different but this seems like a distant prospect. Yes, this has worked for him up until but even Status Quo have starting using a fourth chord!
Our Sunhi is something of a spiritual successor to Haewon and is not a bad film but definitely one with an overplayed gimmick. The performances are believable but the cute story is buried beneath excess meandering, making for a slow moving 88 minutes. Hardcore Hong devotees will love it but I suspect for others this could be a typical Hong film that will prove to be one retread too many.