The Woman Who Ran (Domangchin yeoja)

Korea (2020) Dir. Hong Sang-soo

Spoiler: there are no running women in this film, but they do talk a lot; and eat a lot too, but mostly talk. It’s a Hong Sang-soo film, what do you expect? Anyway, the more pressing question is what exactly is the woman is running from, – just don’t expect any answers over the next 77-minutes.

Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) decides to visit three friends who live on the outskirts of Seoul while her husband is away on a business trip, the first time in their five-year marriage that the couple have been separated. Through deep conversation, Gam-hee hears how the lives – and love lives – of her oldest friends are compared to hers, yet Gam-hee may have an ulterior motive beyond loneliness for making these visits.

Told you it was a Hong Sang-soo film – wafer thin plot, lots of chat, hidden meaning in almost everything we see on screen, it’s all here. Possibly the one major change to be found in The Woman Who Ran is that smoking and drinking is down to the absolute bare minimum – only three people light up and even then it’s not shown up close, and only the odd glass of wine is imbibed.

Does this mean Hong is a changed man, now taken with a positive health direction or possible eco-friendly concerns? Maybe, but he still makes films screenshots from which should be in the dictionary under “prolix”, and of course, his famous random zooms. So, what is the deal with the latest collaboration between Hong and his current muse/lover Kim Min-hee?

Initially, it is about Gam-hee meeting up with old friends whilst her hubby is away, but even Hong is that barren with regard to conjuring up basic ideas for a film. But when the talk turns to married life, themes begin to seep into the fabric of this tale. Gam-hee tells all three friends the same thing about never being separated in five years, because her husband believes people in love should stay together.

Right from the first time she brings it up, it is apparent Gam-hee may not believe it but isn’t quite ready to confirm or deny this – yet. The first person Gam-hee reunites with is divorcee Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa), revealing her marriage ended for the opposite reason: she couldn’t stand being around her husband. Yet, despite this preference for solitude, Young-soon does appear content to have younger housemate Young-jin (Lee Eun-mi) around – who just happens to be female.

Moving on, Gam-hee drops in on self-made singleton Su-young (Song Seon-mi), again someone enjoying her independence financially, but does yearn for male companionship. Currently wooing a soon-to-be divorced architect living a couple of floors above her, this is fine for Su-young but she can do without a needy 26 year-old poet with whom she had a drunken one night stand and now he can’t leave her alone.

Finally, Gam-hee descends upon a café next to an arthouse cinema (this is a Hong film, remember) unaware old acquaintance Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk) works there. It is subtly revealed that there is some bitter history here, as Woo-jin’s author husband Seong-gu (Kwon Hae-hyo) was formerly Gam-hee’s beau until Woo-jin stole him from Gam-hee. Fortunately, it is all in the past for Gam-hee – instead they both gossip about how Seong-gu might be getting a big head from his fame, and how badly he comes across on TV.

Earlier, I alluded to themes arising during the chat sessions, the main one being Gam-hee’s uncertainty at the solidity of her marriage. When mentioning the “five year” statistic to Su-young, the question asked is, “Do you love your husband?” Gam-hee admits she doesn’t know but if she feels something for him at least once a day, that’s good enough to qualify as love for her.

Not the strongest of criteria for keeping a marriage alive, which hints at Gam-hee maybe being an arranged bride after hitting 30 or something. Then there is the irony of Gam-hee noting how Seong-gu repeats himself a lot in TV interviews, and she ponders how he can be sincere trotting of the same old rhetoric. I wonder how many people Seong-gu told verbatim about not being separated from his spouse for five years?

Whilst this continues to mystify us about what Gam-hee is running from, Hong is much clearer about the common denominator of all three arcs being nuisance men. Su-young has her stalker poet, Woo-jin her superstar husband, whilst for Young-soon and Young-jin, it is a new neighbour who demands they stop feeding stray cats because his wife is afraid of cats and can’t leave the house because of them. The women sympathise but say cats deserve to eat too; he insists humans are more important than cats.

Bet you didn’t see that coming – Hong is a cat lover! Far from this being a feminist film, all the men featured here, whether in person or in reference, share the common trait of being able to give the women trouble. Granted, Hong doesn’t necessarily say it is all the men’s fault but he isn’t so delicate in showing them as the lesser alternative to other women or stray cats.

Hong is known for being meta in his films, and (sometimes) discreetly autobiographical, especially the last few years in the wake of his public affair with Kim Min-hee. Reading between the lines, my interpretation of this film is not so much about Gam-hee’s running away but the man she is running from, and Hong, via the men in this story, is publicly and symbolically taking the blame for the effect the scandal had on Kim’s career.

Ultimately, The Woman Who Ran is an odd beast by being a typical Hong film whilst being atypical of him – to wit, this is still a narratively dense, quirkily filmed arthouse cinema puzzle with all the pieces scattered everywhere, but is not as self-indulgent or self-referential as his prior works. Maybe Hong is mellowing?