The title of Hong Sang-soo’s latest film may refer to a café in which some of the action happens, but it also points to the director himself. Or, more precisely, that airy sense of infinite possibilities his more pared-down recent work has exuded even as he’s basically stuck to his usual tropes: sudden zooms, alcohol-fueled improvisation, and a preoccupation with romantic relations and the insecurities of his male and female characters. Somewhat like Woody Allen, if much less ossified in his worldview, Hong doesn’t so much reinvent himself with each new film as add small variations to his methods to keep his obsessions feeling fresh.
The main innovations he introduces in Hill of Freedom are twofold. One is structural, as much of the action is essentially an extended flashback driven by a letter a heartbroken woman reads in the titular cafe—but at one point, she drops the pages while going down a stairwell and, when she picks them up, the pages are out of order. Hong takes that as his cue to scramble the chronology around, with big chunks of flashback denoted by a recurring shot of the woman’s hands turning to the next page. The other change, however, is more thematically tantalizing, at least in theory. As in the Isabelle Huppert-led In Another Country, Hong again casts a non-Korean as his lead: Japanese star Ryô Kase, whose character, Mori, is a recently unemployed, lovelorn young man in Korea looking for a female co-worker, Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), with whom he had a fling a couple years ago while they both worked at an English-language school (the woman is the one who’s reading the letter at the Hill of Freedom).
Because Mori doesn’t speak Korean, everyone around him is forced to speak to him in English, and Hong wrings some sharply comic scenes of miscommunication out of that premise. The elderly landlady who owns the room where Mori is staying tells him that she admires the Japanese for being “nice” and finds Mori’s bluntness different from the norm—a quietly clever undermining of cultural stereotyping. Even characters’ assumptions as to who knows or doesn’t know English is turned into comedy, as in a rather dark scene in which one character angrily and repeatedly calls a young girl a “bitch” after she tells him off and the girl is heard sobbing loudly, having understood him after all.
Neither of these characteristics end up adding much to the film’s central storyline; mostly, they just seem like half-baked gimmicks to gussy up yet another of Hong’s self-deprecating examinations of personal insecurity and romantic confusion. Which isn’t to say that he’s lost any of his powers of human observation. Hong is such a master of subtle characterization that all he needs to show us is a scene of Mori reading books about philosophy to clue us into his romantic nature. There’s even one moment when Hong’s scrambled chronology actually bears resonant fruit, such as a similar conversation that takes place twice that seemingly no one remembers, or at least bothers to point out to each other. Otherwise, Hill of Freedom feels wispy and under-imagined. It isn’t without its pleasures and occasional insights, but ultimately it’s little more than an excuse for Hong to try out a new stylistic color in his auteurist palette. Which is a shame, because the new tools are intriguing enough to warrant a much deeper examination of memory, desire, and regret than he actually offers.