' ' Cinema Romantico: In Front of Your Face

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

In Front of Your Face

On several occasions during Hong Sang-soo’s “In Front of Your Face,” the blog’s favorite movie of 2022, Sang-ok (Lee Hye-yeong) smokes a cigarette. This doesn’t sound like much. Used to be, after all, in those days when Camel ads graced the backs of magazines, that cigarettes were everywhere, including movie screens, where smoking them was often just something for actors to do. Smoking has been phased extensively out of movies, however, just as it has been extensively phased out of public life, particularly in Seoul, where “In Front of Your Face” is set, and so when Sang-ok sneaks a smoke, beneath a pedestrian bridge or outside a restaurant in the rain, it assumes added dimension. That’s part and parcel to Hong’s approach. The title refers to nothing less than heaven itself, which Sang suggests is hiding in front of our faces at all times if only we would let ourselves see it and that we see it by being present, living in the moment. Archaic platitudes, perhaps, but they have never mattered more than here, conveyed in images as mundane as they are monumental, like a painterly one of Sang sneaking a smoke beneath an umbrella in the rain. A cigarette is next to godliness.

A one-time well-known Korean actress who has since lived in the States for a long time, Sang-ok has returned to Seoul to stay with her sister Jeong-ok (Cho Yun-hee) ahead of a meeting with a movie director, Jae won (Kwon Hae-hyo) hoping to cast Sang in a part. Taking place over a single morning, afternoon, and evening, “In Front of Your Face” chronicles her conversations and interactions with these people, as well as a brief trip to her childhood home that has since been bought and transformed into a boutique. This is what passes for action, and though a secret Sang is keeping will eventually be spilled, when it is, it’s evocative of Hong’s intent is to capture his film’s truth in gestures, expressions, reactions, the essence of human behavior. He underlines this in his filmmaking approach, long takes of minimal fuss, typically two shots of people talking. If that sounds boring, or decided not revelatory, it could not be farther from, Hong allowing the deeper truths to quietly emerge on their own time. As Sang and Jeong’s breakfast on a scenic outdoor patio, the distance between them seems to metaphorically grow in the course of their lengthy conversation as we realize – they realize – how little they truly know one another. During her conversation over dinner and beer with the movie director, Hong so subtly pulls us into its rhythm, that when the camera suddenly tilts up and to the left to accommodate another character that just entered the room, he is acknowledging the spell being broken, for us and them.

That secret? Sang is dying, which I hope you won’t take as a spoiler, not least because of how Hong builds this eventual revelation into the movie’s myriad gestures and occurrences too, from the simple food stain that Sang gets on her blouse to the very opening images in which the way Sang briefly lies down on the couch in the dark has a decided funereal air. And though her confession arriving late would seem to retrofit the preceding narrative with a sudden sense of urgency, that urgency takes a different form, putting not so much an exclamation point or even a period as a kind of ellipsis on how life’s monotonous flow just kind of continues as is even when you’ve been sentenced to die. That’s what seems to propel Sang’s nigh mad laugh when she tells the director her fatal prognosis, not facing death with the nobility of some disease of the week weepie but as something more like the grim punchline to this silly thing called life. The return to her childhood home, meanwhile, suggests a more lyrically existential version of Martin Blank in “Grosse Pointe Blank” returning to his childhood home only to find it a convenience store. The shopkeeper allows Sang inside where she passes through various rooms, eventually meeting the shopkeeper’s daughter who Sang almost clutches as much as she embraces. If “In Front of Your Face” is all about concentrating on what’s right in front of you, here Sang allows herself to go down memory lane, just struggling to hang on.

Given her impending demise, when Jae won proposes resurrecting Sang’s career by sculpting a new movie in her image, it becomes less about resurrecting her career than an idea of legacy, and that the project dies as a drunken evening gives way once again to morning, suggests the impotence of legacy, no matter how much we might like to think otherwise. It’s a helluva thing Hong is doing here, making a movie to evince the limits of movies as myth-cementing agents even as his own movie’s images repeatedly personify the fleeting beauty of life. 

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