One of the downsides to South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo being so prolific—he’s made 11 features in the last nine years—is that his lesser efforts can feel like dashed-off variations of his stronger films. Our Sunhi isn’t one of his recent best precisely because its themes and narrative quirks echo earlier works that utilized them in far more provocative or thoughtful ways. In a sense, Hong’s movies are all about the same thing: drunk men making fools of themselves as they try to seduce women who are too good for them. Nonetheless, his fecund career has been proof of how malleable that seemingly thin concept can be, and even the modest Our Sunhi has enough delights and insights to keep one engaged.
The Sunhi is question is a young woman (Jung Yumi) fresh out of film school. Unsure what to do with her life, she’s thinking about continuing her film education by going to America. That would require a letter of recommendation from one of her professors, Choi (Kim Sangjoong), but there’s a complication: They had a romantic dalliance while she was in school. (Even now, he appears to have a thing for his much-younger former student.)
Choi isn’t the only man in Sunhi’s life who seems bewitched by her, though. There’s also Munsu (Lee Sunkyun), an ex who made an unflattering film based on their relationship, and Jaehak (Jung Jaeyoung), Munsu’s friend (and fellow filmmaker), who meets Sunhi and instantly falls for her.
But these men don’t necessarily seem smitten with Sunhi because of her radiance or charm—rather, they see her as a muse or something they can shape. There’s something possessive or needy about their affections, and it’s here that Our Sunhi is most intriguing. This is not Hong’s first movie about filmmakers or artists, and like his previous examples (such as Oki’s Movie) he expresses a certain ambivalence about the creative process, examining the selfish reasons that drive people to make things. Hong’s films are not the place for aspiring screenwriters or directors to go in search of inspiration: Our Sunhi is critical of the ways in which filmmakers redesign their realities through their works in order to settle old scores or reimagine painful pasts. From that perspective, it’s easy to see that the three men view Sunhi as a rough draft that they want to “improve” through rewrites.
Like most of Hong’s output, Our Sunhi straddles the line between light comedy and wistful romantic drama. And as is his custom, the movie relies on repetition in order to underline its points. Here, that means returning to the same restaurants throughout the story—simply switching out characters in those scenes—and even repeating dialogue, with one character using another’s words in a different situation when that other character isn’t there. Beyond demonstrating the insularity of these people’s world, Hong also seems to be suggesting that romantic insecurity and professional competiveness breed an echo-chamber environment that’s nearly incestuous. The laughs come from the recognition of that environment—and from our relief in not being trapped in it.
Still, this is a minor effort from Hong that lacks the ambitious character arc of Night and Day or the Möbius-strip narrative ingenuity of The Day He Arrives. But the core of his overriding concerns remains potent. In Hong’s universe, people still can’t connect because they’re too busy sabotaging themselves through their arrogance and shortsightedness. In his greatest films, he makes that observation hum with poignancy and self-recognition. In something like Our Sunhi, it’s little more than a gentle shrug at our shared foibles.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Writer: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Jung Yumi, Lee Sunkyun, Kim Sangjoong, Jung Jaeyoung
Release Date: Screening at AFI Fest 2013 in the World Cinema section