In Front of Your Face, the latest film from master South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, finds Sangok (Lee Hye-young) returning to Korea after a prolonged absence. Temporarily sleeping on her sister Jeongok’s (Cho Yunhee) couch, the siblings seem content and comfortable in their reunion. Immediately upon waking up, the sisters decide to make the most of their morning—after all, they only have so much time together before Sangok’s “late lunch” meeting with a filmmaker to discuss her potential return to the screen. Once a somewhat successful actress in Korea, Songok ditched the profession in favor of moving to the U.S. with some guy she “barely knew” to open a liquor store. The duo sip coffee, smoke cigarettes by a babbling brook and visit Jeongok’s son’s rice cake shop. They spend their morning savoring each other’s company, even if some past conflicts can’t help but crop up.
Apparently, Jeongok feels abandoned by her sister’s extended jaunt abroad—on top of that, she hasn’t visited much since their mother’s death—and Sangok has a devastating secret of her own. Yet In Front of Your Face isn’t concerned with the petty personal grievances loved ones amass over a lifetime. Instead, it fixates on the small revelations that serve as self-imposed curtains between individuals, drawn tightly (and sometimes unintentionally) until a knowing light begs to shine through. “There’s so much we don’t know about each other, right?” Jeongok comments after Sangok reveals a previously undisclosed fear of heights. “Even after growing up together.”
Largely taking place over the course of a single day, In Front of Your Face lingers on life’s little details. A bee pollinating a flower, a marvelous cup of coffee and the momentary salve of a cigarette add as much to the story as the film’s more intense emotional revelations. It’s true that the sisters don’t necessarily possess the fullest pictures of each other—but Jeongok’s perception, even for an out-of-touch sibling who hasn’t responded to her sister’s recent letters, is often scarily spot-on. The beauty of the sparse film is that Hong manages to preserve the daily inconsequence of these one-off remarks and interactions, though they hold so much significance. Sometimes, sisters really do just exist on a deeper level of understanding—it doesn’t really take a whole lot of brainwork to connect the dots. As such, it’s an effortless task to simply soak in the film’s sun-drenched exterior shots, basking in the beauty of a perfect spring day.
It’s when Sangok is separated from her sister, however, that the cracks in this seemingly blithe existence begin to reveal themselves. When her lunch appointment is abruptly pushed back, she visits her childhood home on a whim. Mostly everything has changed—the building was converted into a retail store long ago—but the verdant garden remains exactly the same. Exploring the unfamiliar layout of what is now a stranger’s house, Sangok’s recurring inner monologue chastises her intrusion: “Let me see what is in front of my face.” A young girl approaches her—a new generation living in the home—and Sangok’s tension immediately melts away. Perhaps this child symbolizes her own misplaced nostalgia, challenging her to create positive memories for young people as opposed to losing herself in the murky haze of her own past. It becomes clear that for Sangok, living in the present is of paramount importance.
The significance of time—namely remaining tethered to the tangible moment at hand—is exemplified in one specific scene: A nearly 12-minute, uninterrupted take captures a drunken conversation between Sangok and director Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo), undoubtedly the film’s most emotional exchange. They discuss their respective careers, views on mortality, and even take a break to play some guitar. At once sloppy, endearing and just a tad too intimate to handle, the scene is a hyper-realistic feat from Lee and Kwon. To convey that sentimental range during an extended take is always impressive to watch, and the actors certainly benefit from Hong’s careful guidance. This method is typical of Hong’s filmmaking style—uninterrupted takes, interspersed only with the occasional zoom or pan so as not to cut the camera—yet it never feels over-done. While many have derided the general use of zooms in narrative films (mostly citing a nebulous cinematic laziness), they are not utilized by Hong for the sole purpose of cut-and-dry efficiency. The approach adds a layer of commentary to the subjects—especially when they’re in conversation—focusing on one character’s expression while divulging or reacting to information. The intimacy conjured by a zoom-in, though, is almost always countered with a zoom-out when the scene eventually comes to a close. As always, these moments of closeness are fleeting. Hong is all too aware of that impermanence.
In Front of Your Face beautifully maximizes the minute details of daily life—a short-lived reunion between aunt and nephew, a spicy (and messy) bowl of tteokbokki, a sister deep in early morning slumber. In most other filmmaker’s hands, these seemingly inconsequential observations wouldn’t seamlessly create a tender and alluring narrative. Yet Hong Sang-soo seems to have it all down to a science. This is Hong’s second film of 2022—his first, Introduction, was released in the U.S. this past January—and his latest work, The Novelist’s Film, won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. With the filmmaker’s eyesight gradually deteriorating, the time is nigh to savor every new film he bestows on audiences—revealing newfound insights on mortality, illness and, of course, the absurdity inherent to the filmmaking process.
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Writers: Hong Sang-soo
Stars: Lee Hye-young, Cho Yunhee, Kwon Hae-hyo, Shin Seok-ho
Release Date: May 6, 2022
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan