In his last film, the beguiling In Another Country, Hong Sang-soo used an itinerant Frenchwoman played by Isabelle Huppert as a direct symbol of estrangement. Played by Jung Eun-chae, the title character in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon seems less emblematic and even more of a mystery, a struggling young actress defined by her “mixed blood” and ever-present emotional confusion, forever in search of the right place to fit. As the film opens, she’s propelled still further into uncertainty by what amounts to a case of late-stage orphanhood, contemplating the departure of her mother, who’s heading off to start a new life in Canada.
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is as fixated on themes of bewilderment and disconnection as any Hong film, but here there’s a bit more emphasis on death, which appears as both a lurking consequence and a reminder of the absurdity of these characters’ neurotic machinations. This means less irresponsible soju consumption and more quiet contemplation, with much of the action taking place in the historical ruins of Seoul’s Namhan Fortress. It’s here that Haewon’s on-and-off boyfriend, Seong-joon (Lee Sun-kyun), wonders about the vanished souls of the men who built the structure, finding in their complete erasure a parallel for his own wasted life. In this atmosphere of uncertainty and dread, a casually dropped aphorism like “death resolves all” functions less as a bit of levity than a comforting realization, the antidote to a world where there’s so much to be resolved.
Yet despite the grim fatalism of these characters, the focus is less on universal questions of mortality than the lengthening shadows cast by the passage of time. Each Hong film has its own signature narrative trick, and while the device used here is one of his least interesting (increasingly surreal scenes that turn out to be dreams or fantasies), the oneiric atmosphere allows for a further honing of his skill for carefully selected imagery. One of the most quietly significant shots is that of a tossed cigarette, granted a zoom that seems odd at first, but gains clarity as the film circles back to this image, functioning as a cinematic ghost note. Haewon eventually steps on that same cigarette, not once but twice, both times extinguishing the flame, and both instances linked to possible storylines that are never pursued, creating a sort of meta-commentary in which the film itself seems to be forcing her into making the same mistakes again and again.
This circularity connects to the conception of places as totemic reminders of past events, their meanings deepening as they gather associations and memories. Like so many Hong protagonists, Haewon remains trapped in a cyclical loop of familiar faces and repeated misfortunes, spending most of the film sparring with Seong-joon, a married professor who’s childishly impulsive and possessive. Splintering the narrative, she eventually takes up with another professor, who’s an improvement only insofar as he lives in San Diego and is in the market for a new wife. We’re left to wonder whether her enthusiasm for this new man is linked to an unspoken urge to shrink the distance from her mother or the simple desire to escape a country that doesn’t seem to have any use for her, but it’s easy to see the allure of this bad decision, which promises renewed stability and a handy replacement parent. Meanwhile, the insistence on repeating the same old mistakes gets communicated via a consistent use of circular patterns of movement, from an early shot of Haewon running in circles around an old statue (itself an instrumental part of her own mother’s memories) to the way the story circles around the same locations, which deepen in relevance as we hear more and more stories about them.
The second of three consecutive films by Hong featuring female protagonists (Our Sunhi premiered last month at Locarno), Nobody’s Daughter Haewon signals a continuing shift in the filmmaker’s style, from the melancholically comedic treatment of bad behavior to more sensitively toned character sketches. Earlier films like Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and Woman Is the Future of Man considered the plight of women in the grip of boorish man-children, positioning them at the nexus of poisonous love triangles, but placed the focus on ensemble dynamics or the stumbling struggles of those boneheaded men. Here the mistakes may be the same, but the angle from which they’re approached has grown more humanist and meticulous. The anxious, booze-addled men aren’t the protagonists, or even a primary concern, just another outgrowth of a dully hostile environment, another negative force on a character desperate for a place to belong, a condition the film illustrates with clean, proficient grace.