If there’s one director I want this website to turn Americans on to, it’s Hong Sang-soo. He’s a prolific director, consistently praised by critics (and Martin Scorsese too), and has won awards at European international film festivals, including the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes. He is well-known and admired in Europe, but the bulk of his movies are unavailable in the United States. As of the time I’m writing this, his movie Woman Is the Future of Man is not available to stream on Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, or Hulu; the DVD is out of stock on Amazon and unavailable to rent on Netflix.
I’m writing this then on the off-chance that you can find a way to watch it—or, if nothing else, to inform you about one of the more interesting movies to come out of Korea.
The first thing that stands out in Woman Is the Future of Man, which gets its title from a poem by Louis Aragon, is the awkwardness. It begins when two male friends, Hunjoon (Kim Tae-woo) and Munho (Yoo Ji-tae), get together for the first time since Hunjoon has come home from studying in America. Their dialogue never falls into a rhythm. Their dynamic is more like that of people on a blind date than old friends, and we don’t know the reason. Is Munho mad at Hunjoon? Have they spent too much time apart? Were they never that close? Are they just awkward people?
They meet at Munho’s house, and from there they go to a restaurant (Munho’s wife conspicuously doesn’t want Hunjoon inside—we don’t know what this says about Hunjoon, but we know it’s not good). They eat, get drunk, and reminisce about Sunhwa (Sung Hyun-ah), the woman at the center of a love triangle with these men. Just as we don’t know what’s going on between Hunjoon and Munho, we can’t make clear sense of the kinds of relationships either of these characters have had with her. We are given pieces of narrative from each of their times with her, but Hong omits key details from before, between, or after these pieces and doesn’t make clear how much time has passed between them. We understand that unsavory choices have been made—all the characters are flawed—but there’s wiggle room in our understanding, and we can’t see to what extent any character is responsible.
To take one example, we can look at an early scene between Hunjoon and Sunhwa. In a scene that, thanks both to Hong’s directing and Kim’s and Sung’s performances, manages to be as funny as it is unsettling, Sunhwa tells Hunjoon that she has been raped. Soon after, he is soaping her down in the shower, she naked, he in tighty-whities. Next, they are having sex, which he says is to “cleanse” her, and we don’t know whether they are in an intimate relationship or this is their first time together. We don’t know what led up to the shower, or what led up to the sex. Was Hunjoon manipulating her, or was he sincerely comforting her?
Though we come to similar holes throughout the movie, Hong still tells a complete story. Our understanding just depends on the way we fill the holes. He deprives us of information and also moves freely through time, jumping to flashbacks or dream sequences without indicating what he is doing until it is over. These devices can make make the movie confusing, but the effect is not jarring. Rather than take pleasure in unsettling his audience, bucking their expectations (the directors Michael Haneke and Korea’s Kim Ki-duk come to mind), Hong finds joy in playing with the conventions of storytelling, in finding humor in uncertainty and discomfort. Indeed, some of the movie’s funniest moments occur when Hong reveals the trick he has been playing.
As for the way we follow the story, we are curious about the way events will unfold, but we don’t know what to hope for or expect. Which character do we root for? What would a satisfying ending look like? There’s no outcome that we think should arise, but still, when these three characters get together, what does end up happening is one thing we’d hoped wouldn’t happen. This moment seems disappointing at first—it was the moment of my strongest emotional response—but the feeling didn’t stick since I couldn’t think of an alternative I would have preferred.
There even is something satisfying in the empowerment behind this moment. Sunhwa is the agent of a bad decision, and, through her assertion, we see her for the first time not as a mere prize to be won but an equal player in the story. She is a rounded character, with her own interests and motivations, as able to make poor decisions as the men. From this moment on, we are more intrigued by who Sunhwa is.
The thing we most want to know more about is the rape. Outside of the one sequence with Hunjoon, it is never made explicit, but the experience lingers in our impression of Sunhwa. Her rape does not define her, but we see her as the men, or any outsider, would see her. We don’t know why she behaves the way she does or how the rape has affected her, but we speculate that it’s damaged her, that it’s behind whatever bad decisions she makes—even if it’s just a hairstyle. Perhaps she has managed the experience as healthily as anyone could, but it’s hard to give her the benefit of of the doubt, and, naturally, no dialogue is raised to suggest that much.
It is in this way that Hong captures a piece of real life. The ugly parts of the past don’t come up, whether it’s Sunhwa’s rape or whatever details we never see from Hunjoon’s or Munho’s past. Their pasts manifest themselves in awkwardness or bad, drunken decisions rather than relived memories. This is what it looks like for normal people to live their lives, carry forward with bad experiences, doing their best to not let them damage them. Are they doing a good job? We can’t say. They carry on, resilient enough to manage, but aware enough to look back with regret and guilt.
Woman Is the Future of Man
<여자는 남자의 미래다> (Yeoja-neun Namja-ui Miraeda)