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Review: In Front of Your Face Is a Detail-Rich Rumination on Human Impermanence

The film is an obsessive rumination on the little squabbles and inconveniences and pleasures that add up to the bulk of our lives.

3.5
In Front of Your Face
Photo: Cinema Guild

Hong Sang-soo’s In Front of Your Face is an obsessive rumination on the little squabbles and inconveniences and pleasures that add up to the bulk of our lives. Throughout this spritely and elegiac production, the quotidian-minded Hong lingers on details that most filmmakers would either take for granted and entirely disregard. In the film, characters talk about whether to get coffee, a small stain on a dress becomes an existentialist symbol of control, and, of course, there’s a prolonged soju-drinking session with a blinkered male artist in which a few emotional cards are finally laid on the table.

Hong’s gift resides in part in his ability to inform potentially tedious tangents with a rapturous and seemingly effortlessly achieved intensity. He returns to the same ground throughout his films and justifies the repetition, which becomes resonant in its own right. Like Rainer Werner Fassbinder claimed to be doing, Hong is building a house—an interconnected series of films about the collision between day-to-day nonsense and private artistic realms.

Sangok (Lee Hye-young) is on a return visit to Seoul from the U.S., though it takes Hong several minutes to reveal even such rudimentary exposition. The first several images of In Front of Your Face are largely silent, except for life-affirming voiceover by Sangok, who vows to live in the present and be attentive to, well, what’s in front of her face—a phrase that’s later directly evoked in a moment of painful catharsis. Sangok is first seen lying on a couch, shadows creeping over her dark-colored blouse, a stark close-up of her face imbued with conflicting emotions. There’s something subtly gothic about these compositions, suggesting that Sangok is in a coffin. Eventually she arises and regards a portion of a Seoul cityscape.

Not much later, Sangok meets Jeongok (Cho Yun-hee) at an outdoor café with an astonishing view of Seoul’s mountains, which Hong invests with colors so ecstatic that they’re nearly hallucinatory. Their conversation establishes that they’re sisters, each with money problems. In a cutting, casual observation, Sangok says that she has no savings, and that’s simply how people in the States live. Jeongok wants her sister to return to Seoul, but that isn’t to be.

Sangok and Jeongok’s day together, including a walk around Seoul and a visit to Jeongok’s son at his successful eatery, composes nearly half of In Front of Your Face’s 84 minutes. Characteristically, Hong’s film isn’t beholden to a traditional plot, with forward-driving incidents and reveals. The filmmaker has the confidence and the ability, along with his extraordinary actors, to build his films entirely out of gestures, deflections, and the various other ticks that embody the manna of between-the-lines communication between people.

Few contemporary filmmakers are as alive to how people actually talk to one another, to how they say something very serious about themselves almost accidentally between shooting the shit, as Hong. Over the course of several scenes, we feel as if we know the entire shape of the sisters’ relationship. They barely know one another any longer, and are adrift on a sea of their own disappointments and insecurities, particularly Jeongok. Unforgettable moments continually arise in In Front of Your Face, from the way Sangok seals her coat to hide a stain, suggesting someone taking refuge into themselves, to her nephew’s poignant formality with the aunt he hasn’t seen in years, to the virtual entirety of the film’s second major section, in which Sangok meets an admiring filmmaker played by Hong regular Kwon Hae-hyo.

Sangok was once an actress, who gave up that life to follow a man to the States, where she got a conventional retail job. Now she’s returned to Seoul to meet a younger filmmaker who’s enamored with her work from the ‘90s, and Hong stages their lunch meeting with an uncanny sense of detail, from the seriocomic debate over what Chinese food to eat to the characters bringing food from one establishment over to an abandoned bar.

Throughout their meeting, the filmmaker is courteous, differential, and, as the soju takes hold, clearly governed by a sexual agenda, and the man’s quiet desperation is vividly established by Hong and Kwon. Correspondingly, Hong and Lee are aware of the defenses a woman must maintain in such a situation, which Sangok telegraphs as a kind of amused, semi-empathetic contempt. And even this scene is capped with an ecstatic grace note: of the filmmaker and Sangok standing together under an umbrella in an alleyway, taking refuge from the rain.

Attempting to transcend the petty noise of life, Sangok sees this conversation as but a little part of the human comedy at large. Later in the film, in a moment of striking tonal discombobulation, she laughs heartily at a mealy-mouthed voice message. But she can’t entirely distance herself from life’s chaos. Looking over her sleeping sister, Sangok asks if she dreams. It’s among the most moving moments in Hong’s career, suggesting an anguished direct address to his audience: Amid unmooring, painful, beautiful hurly-burly, how do we maintain our inexplicable, artistic, intuitive nature, the soft center of ourselves?

Cast: Lee Hye-young, Cho Yun-hee, Kwon Hae-hyo Director: Hong Sang-soo Screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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