As one of the most prominent Korean directors internationally, Hong Sang-soo has unfortunately not been as popular at home as his fellow auteurs Park Chan-wook, Bong Joong-ho, or Lee Chang-dong. “Woman is the Future of Man” features Yoo Ji-Tae, right when he became a major star with “Oldboy”, which was also in competition at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. But unlike that movie, Hong’s film was received unenthusiastically by international critics and with little interest by viewers at home.
The film tells the story of two friends, Lee Moon-ho (Yoo Ji Tae) and Kim Hyun-geon (Kim Tae-Woo) who reunite after a couple of years apart to discuss about Hyun-geon’s ex-girlfriend Park Seon-hwa (Sung Hyun-ah). Moon-ho is a professor and Hyung-geon is a filmmaker who just came back from studying abroad in the United States. During their meeting, Hyun-geon asks Moon-ho to reunite him with his girlfriend. Unbeknownst to him, Moon-ho and Seon-hwa had a sexual relationship after Hyun-geon left.
From the very first scene, I can already tell why Hong Sang-soo is often impenetrable for audiences and sometimes overvalued by arthouse critics. The story employs fractured storytelling, going back and forth between the past and the present, where the two friends try to find Seon-hwa. Meanwhile, Hong Sang-soo’s film is cinematically sparse: his preference for static shots and long takes is exasperating because we are always at arms’ length from the story. It’s hard to get involved with a film that tries so hard to be taken seriously without having much to say.
The sexual politics, for instance, is really upsetting. The men in the film treat the women like objects. Both Moon-ho and Hyung-geon treats Seon-Hwa like a sex-doll and objectifies every other woman in the film. And even if this is the point that Hong criticizes, he does a bad job at making such a definitive statement, especially when the film itself treats the women with little interest. Consider the fact that Seon-Hwa is almost unknowable, always servicing men, but hardly being serviced herself. She might be the object of both men’s affection, but the film barely cares about what she likes or who she is as an individual. In fact, by the end of the movie, both men have left her alone stranded again, yet the camera continues on to Moon-ho’s character finding another girl to pleasure him.
I can see what might attract critics to Hong’s movies, but as far as I’m concerned, his films are not as interesting or well-made as the other renowned compatriots who are quite popular worldwide right now.
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