Zoom in. Zoom out. A pensive pan shot to embrace the hazy landscape. Music is barely there in the shape of a moody tune to briefly accompany the characters and then bid them goodbye in a solitary cinema. Hong Sang-soo’s cinematic apparatus might seem limited to some, but it’s in the endless repetition of the same movements that perfection is achieved. His camerawork lulls the viewer into dreamy places until it reclaims them back when fractures occur: a word, a detail the camera decides to focus on, or simply the absence of them all. The Woman Who Ran (Domangchin yeoja) is no different. The film pulls the audience in with an unexpected flock of chickens conquering the frame in the opening shot, and asks viewers to stay and meet the women animating its vignettes.
Unusual for a Hong film is the nearly absolute absence of men. It’s not like they’re crossed out, but they only exist in liminal roles. Men casually appear in conversation — where they’re either remembered with a subtle smile or reproached for their insufferable quirks and attitudes — or knock at a woman’s door asking for unreasonable things (like to stop feeding a stray cat). Hong’s 24th feature is a world of women revolving around Gam-hee (another indulgent performance by the muse Kim Min-hee) and her group of friends. Gam-hee sports a short, curly bob that makes her look like a “flighty high school student.” She feasts on meat perfectly cooked by Young-soon’s (Seo Young-hwa) flatmate. She visits her girlfriends and can’t stop stressing that this is the first time in five years she’s not in a symbiotic daily life with her husband. Basically, Gam-hee is another elusive yet charming character in Hong’s pantheon.
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Also unusual for Hong, soju doesn’t appear in The Woman Who Ran. When Gam-hee visits Young-soon and her flatmate, she brings them a bunch of meat and some alcohol. They end up having a party but stay away from drinking. Instead, coffee is poured aplenty throughout the film. The intimacy that these women share — or have shared in the past — doesn’t need any tipsy push to be kept alive. They casually talk about renting or buying flats, about jobs and people they happened to meet — the usual, boring and adult kind of chats. Yet, it’s a different maturity that Hong displays in The Woman Who Ran. If the flirty, artsy conversations in coffee shops and bars are the arena for women and men to smite each other, the collected tranquility of apartments is a women-only space. In the only coffee shop scene in the film, Gam-hee meets with an old friend, and the melancholic tension between them opens to a past where the two might have been more than just friends. It’s not the first time that Hong has alluded to same-sex female intimacy, but this particular moment has never felt so encouraged. It’s a nuanced representation, and — when the camera zooms in on two hands touching — it’s clear that the unsaid significance runs deeper.
In The Woman Who Ran, cinema occupies a seemingly marginal space (also unusual for a Hong film). There’s only one character who’s said to work in the film industry, and directors are only briefly mentioned. Rather than being talked about, cinema is like a siren’s song. “I used to meet lots of people, but now I don’t want to see anyone” announces Gam-hee earlier in the film. Yet, she keeps meeting friends to peek at their lives through security cameras and digital peepholes before embracing solitude in a film theatre. In a way, The Woman Who Ran becomes an echo chamber, a charming place where, once again, Hong’s characters are attentively studied.
Ren Scateni (@whateverren) is a freelance film journalist based in Edinburgh. She has written for MUBI, Little White Lies, Girls on Tops and other outlets.