Three passengers sit aboard a train heading south from Seoul to Chuncheon. They're pressed shoulder to shoulder, but the selectiveness of writer-director Jang Woo-jin's framing leaves the crowdedness of the cabin up to assumption. Two of the passengers, Heung-ju (Yang Heung-ju) and Se-rang (Lee Se-rang), chat about the difficulty, in middle age, of staying in touch with old friends. The third, Ji-hyeon (Woo Ji-hyeon), sits quietly alongside them, occasionally fidgeting in his seat and, at one point, getting up to conduct some business off screen. Significantly younger (the audience later learns that he's a recent college graduate), Ji-hyeon could be forgiven for having no interest in his neighbors' routine pleasantries, but his silence makes as much of an impact as the discussion happening adjacent to him.
This is the disarming in media res opening to Autumn, Autumn, a film which forgoes a title card until midway through its runtime. When that card comes, an entire story has already been told, though not the one we'd expect after the introductory scene. Jang's first cut away from the train—the film unfolds in 40 or so lengthy single-shot sequences—connects us to Ji-hyeon, rather than the older pair, as he ascends an escalator out of the train station. On his way up, he crosses paths with an old friend whose name he can't recall, and the ensuing scenes detail his time wandering around a sleepy, overcast Chuncheon—a “shithole” in his eyes—while scavenging for odd jobs and contemplating whether or not to reconnect with his comrade from the past.
If conventional narrative cinema grammar has trained us to understand scenes taking place prior to the broadcasting of a film's title as build-up to the story proper, a whetting of the palette for the more significant events to come, then how do we negotiate the import of Ji-hyeon's tale, remarkably slight as it seems? This is just one of the gentle perplexities of Autumn, Autumn, a deft realist miniature that operates as both a record of everyday spaces and a document of the emotionally charged, albeit ephemeral, human dramas that pass through them. When the film abandons Ji-hyeon after its delayed title card to resume a different narrative thread, it becomes apparent that Jang's conception of storytelling isn't linear but delicately cubist, and rooted less by human agency than by a fixed time and place.
The film is a record of everyday spaces and the emotionally charged human dramas that pass through them.
Autumn, Autumn's second half rewinds to follow Heung-ju and Se-rang, who we gradually learn, through an infinitely subtle chain of dialogue cues, are on their first date after partaking in a prolonged online acquaintance. Over the course of their shared afternoon and evening, Heung-ju and Se-rang find themselves in many of the same locations that Ji-hyeong occupied earlier in the film: the train station escalator, a lookout point near the town's Soyang Dam, a ferry, and Cheongpyeong Buddhist Temple. They also enjoy a pair of meals, one on the patio of a bibimbap joint overlooking the water and one in a modest café flooded with fluctuating natural light, that each run on screen for more than six minutes—durations handled by Yang and Lee with an unwavering commitment to the shifting dynamic between their characters.
By now, the resemblances between Autumn, Autumn and the films of Hong Sang-soo should be self-evident: the bifurcated structure, the pared-down mise-en-scène, mealtime as a default set piece. Jang's vision, however, differs in a few crucial ways. For one, the director downplays the echoes across the film's two halves by using different camera angles to introduce the rhyming locations. Similarly, in the first half, when Ji-hyeon stops to observe a preying mantis, the camera joins him, whereas Heung-ju and Se-rang only mention in passing the presence of the same bug out of our view at their lunch table.
Furthermore, Jang hits a chord of mortification that's more restrained, and ultimately more dismaying, than what fuels Hong's work. Instead of the squirmy comic foibles of Right Now, Wrong Then or The Day He Arrives, audiences are offered hesitantly executed stabs at connection that cascade into pockets of silence or sidetracking small talk in which tiny details speak volumes: In the climax of the second half, it's a stroke of genius how Lee covers her mouth as her character smiles—a gesture that belies depths of unacknowledged discomfort. Autumn, Autumn isn't as accomplished as the aforementioned films, as there's too much meandering filler padding out its keystone moments of character building. But with a bit more honing of his craft, it's easy to imagine Jang turning the diverting poignancy of this snapshot into something genuinely devastating down the line.