Hill Of Freedom (Ja-yu-eui eon-deok)
Korea (2014) Dir. Hong Sang-soo
It is fair to say that Hong Sang-soo is something of an anomaly in cinema insofar as being a one-note director who is able to somehow still make fresh and intriguing films regardless of him essentially reinventing the wheel with each new project.
Hill Of Freedom doesn’t deviate too much from the Hong formula of people bonding and philosophising over coffee, cigarettes and booze, captured in static shots which randomly zoom in and out with alarming haste. However one big twist this time is that the dialogue is largely spoken in English despite the cast being Japanese and Korean.
The other novelty is the way the story is told. It centres on a woman named Kwon (Seo Young-hwa) who receives a bunch of letters from her former Japanese language teacher Mori (Ryo Kase), who has arrived in Korea to catch up with her. Kwon drops the letters and when picked up again she finds they are not dated thus their chronology has been lost.
As she reads the letters, we see the story played out in the same random order, flitting from one time line to another. Mori is staying at a guest house near Kwon’s hometown but Kwon isn’t there, so Mori amuses himself whilst trying to find her with frequent visits to the Hill Of Freedom café run by Young-sun (Moon So-ri) or hanging around with Sang-won (Kim Eui-sung), the broke nephew of Mori’s landlady Gu-ok (Youn Yuh-jung).
It is easily missed by Kwon also appears to have missed one of the letters as she picked them up, which might explain some of the unresolved plot threads by the time we reach the end. Or perhaps Hong had felt he had shared enough of this story and couldn’t be bothered with any more, which may explain the extremely brisk 63 minute run time.
Despite the haphazard delivery the story is easy enough to follow and the fact the chronology is so askew doesn’t disrupt the flow of the narrative. The opening act is in correct sequence so our introduction to the three principals and the general direction of the tale is established without confusion. It is only when Kwon drops the letters that the fun begins.
The time frame of the scenes with Kwon, since Mori’s letters refer to his time in Korea when she wasn’t around, throw the biggest spanner in the works in terms of keeping the audience on their toes. Mori’s opening missive explains that he is on a plane and heading to Seoul to once again locate Kwon and each letter is a document of what he got up to the last time her arrived in her absence.
I won’t say anymore to avoid spoiling the story but Hong is intent on teasing us throughout this film and the random structure is his weapon of choice this time around. Yet anyone familiar with his films will recognise the laconic style, verbose discussion, plenty of cigarette smoke (even Kwon who is supposedly recovering from shamanistic medical treatment can’t avoid lighting up) and of course coffee.
With Mori being Japanese Hong largely avoids the culture clash cliché, since Mori was a language teacher once based in Seoul (where he met Kwon), so he is not exactly a fish out of water. Mori does have the handicap however of not being able to speak Korean – nor do the locals speak Japanese – so it is fortunate that everyone speaks English.
This may favour English-speaking audiences (although the heavy accents are quite a distraction) but what Hong achieves with this is to put everyone on an equal plane, cutting through any geographical and cultural boundaries, replacing them with mutual acceptance. Naturally Mori is asked about his opinion of Korea and its people and he answers frankly and diplomatically.
At the end of the film, Sang-won even remarks that Mori seems more Korean than Japanese, while Sang-won himself comments during their first meeting that Americans thought he was Chinese. Hong may have been satirising the western ignorance towards the Asian appearance but Mori does indeed fit in very well with the Koreans, with much of the renowned public Japanese manners similar to those of his hosts.
One of Hong’s traits is remaining distant from his characters and not revealing too much history behind them, and while this is subverted somewhat by the conceit of the letters relating the main story in fracture flashback, Mori is another curious Hong creation. In his opening letter and throughout the film Mori admits he once loved Kwon but now he “respects” her.
Considering Mori spends practically the whole film in the company of others, what is it about Kwon that inspires him so? Absolutely nothing about their relationship is revealed and Mori tells no-one about Kwon either, outside of his ambiguous pat reply of “I’m hoping to meet someone.”
It doesn’t stop Mori getting close to Young-son who has a boyfriend, although he is a bit of a louse by all accounts. Is this is a case of “while the cat is away?” or did this experience serve as a catalyst for Mori to re-evaluate his feelings for Kwon? Neither Mori or Hong are prepared to tell us so the audience is again left to figure this one out for themselves, and I am sure the results will be varied.
For his cast, Hong has called upon reliable favourites such as the always enchanting Moon So-ri, veteran Youn Yuh-jung and Kim Eui-sung who reciprocate with suitably natural performances alongside Japanese interloper Ryo Kase, who has done just about every genre in cinema spanning multiple territories. Also, keep an eye out for other Hong regulars Jung Eun-Chae and Gi Ju-Bong in cameo roles.
Once again Hong Sang-soo beguiles us with Hill Of Freedom which offers more than the disorderly storytelling might imply. There is perhaps a little too much ambiguity and too many open ends but if you know Hong’s work you should enjoy this one too.