Professional uncertainty sparks the lithe narrative of Hong Sang-soo’s latest wry relationship comedy, Our Sunhi. The film’s eponymous filmmaker (Jeong Yu-mi) is considering going abroad to the States for further schooling, but quietly fears the routine of education and its comforts. Returning to her alma matter, she seeks a glowing recommendation from her former professor, Choi (Kim Su-ro), and Hong, in a familiar narrative tactic, throws all manner of romantic entanglement into Sunhi’s two-day visit. A past of repressed feelings and bad trysts is summoned, but the conversations between Sunhi and her men seem to pivot more on questions of a sustainable career in filmmaking.
Themselves often filmmakers and film scholars, Hong’s men have a tendency to envision women as controllable characters in their own narrative, as symbols of hope and inspiration, which the director often cannily upends. Hong has always been in danger of simplifying his female characters in similar ways, defining their world with less insight and nuance than his men, but Jeong’s performance radiates with a steeled logic even as her character seems vulnerable in her own ambitions. (Or is it a need to put off an attempt at an artistic career by opting to extend an intellectual pursuit?) Choi’s recommendation letter goes from a warm but wobbly endorsement to a full-throated praise of prodigious talent after they spend a drunken night of romantic confessions and making out.
Sunhi fulfills Choi’s fantasy of rebirth and he rewards her, but Hong also considers Sunhi’s floundering flirtations with a former classmate and lover (Lee Seon-gyun), and Jae-hak (Jung Jae-young), a beleaguered director and colleague of Choi’s. What continues to separate Hong from the pack is the way he sharply and unromantically views the love affairs that almost were, those intimate moments that just didn’t bloom. When Jae-hak and Sunhi nearly go home together, Hong is careful not to embarrass the elder character or make him out to be some wise man above the act of sleeping with Sunhi. In Our Sunhi, the interest isn’t in depicting how personal choices denote a moral compass, but how revisiting decisions of the past can often mask an inability to make decisions concerning the future.
Alcohol, per usual, is seen as a crucial yet often damning social lubricant. (You’ll notice how Hong’s characters are constantly evading orders of fried food to drink more liquor.) Drinking stretches out time, allows one to evade actually getting to a point. Sunhi is herself looking for a reason to not quite start her professional career by giving schooling another go, and ultimately, her desperation and panic is no different from the men she encounters. There’s a lacerating sense of self-defeat to Our Sunhi, but the bruising ramification of these actions are never felt as deeply as they are in Hong’s most daring works (The Day He Arrives, Woman on the Beach, Night and Day). The drama is a bit too limited in scope in Our Sunhi, as that slight but key sting of regret is not felt by the time Sunhi’s chickens come home to roost. Rather, Hong leaves the film with an eloquently comical and quietly reflexive scenario, as Choi directs (indeed, choreographs) Sunhi through a hurried exit from an impending storm of romantic ruin.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 17—27.