Prolific director Hong Sang-soo is on fine form again with In Front of Your Face, as he channels the beauty of life’s simplicities into his well-drawn characters.
Hong Sang-soo’s impressive output of at least one feature every year – despite only making his first feature in 1996, In Front of Your Face is his 26th film – has somehow never diminished the dramatic returns or filmic integrities of each release. Often shooting with a low budget and a directorial spontaneity, Hong’s other trademarks of single, static shots and slow camera zooms are all present in In Front of Your Face, a brief but emotionally striking tale of domesticity in Seoul.
Most impressively, Hong channels an Ingmar Bergman-type energy into the film and draws on the Swedish maestro’s Wild Strawberries (1957), with both films striking a chord through their central characters’ appreciations of the simple things in life and the sentimentality and nostalgia which comes with them. In Front of Your Face is too slight to stand on the same level as this 1950s masterpiece and its opening sections are less compelling than its later stages, but Hong’s film is still a remarkable example of simplicity imbued with surprising emotional depth.
Former actress Sangok (Lee Hye-young, The Novelist’s Film) has returned to Seoul after years of living in America and is temporarily staying with her sister Jeongok (Cho Yun-hee, The Day After). The sisters share a single morning together, getting coffee and toast at an idyllic café, walking through parks and visiting Jeongok’s son’s restaurant. They discuss wider themes such as Westernisation whilst also focussing on – or rather roundly sidestepping – elements such as familial issues and personal regret. Hong’s screenplay is as good as ever in saying just as much with no words or small, passive comments, always hinting at underlying feelings of resentment or frustration. In Front of Your Face flounders and meanders slightly in its first half, only finding a true narrative thrust when Sangok meets with a film director, Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo, The Woman Who Ran, Peninsula), to discuss a return to acting, but its themes are impressively written and instantly relatable.
As is the case with most Hong Sang-soo films, In Front of Your Face has a raw, lived-in authenticity and a peaceful domicile rhythm to it. You can feel every rustle of leaves, every sip of coffee that the characters take; even the rain that surrounds two characters huddling under an umbrella is tangible and adds a distinct texture to the film. Hong’s camerawork and cinematography are striking in their simplicity and are equally effective in how they conjure up a specific time and place. All of this realism is in keeping with In Front of Your Face’s focus on the most immediate things – those right in front of you – being the most important. Similarly to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, In Front of Your Face has a severe but gorgeous introspection to it. Sangok finds peace upon her return to Seoul, visiting her old home and reconnecting with her childhood memories and innocence; a particularly bracing moment sees her embrace a young girl living there now, the child acting as both a representation of Sangok’s childhood and a conduit to her memories. A large revelation later in the film enhances these moments further, marking In Front of Your Face out as an especially moving piece of cinema.
A newcomer to the films of Hong, Lee brings a wonderful stoicism to the role whilst also imbuing it with a vulnerability, one that is amplified with each memory and reflection that hits her. Her character finds clarity later in life but not before it’s too late; despite the often-melancholic edge, In Front of Your Face is ultimately an uplifting small tale of human connection and appreciation for the wider world. The film’s emotional angle never elevates onto the highest level, but In Front of Your Face is further proof of Hong’s impressive skill at crafting great human stories out of everyday domestic simplicities – as well as evidence of his remarkable filmmaking abilities, as he is here on directing, screenwriting, producing, scoring, editing and cinematography detail.
In Front of Your Face will be released in UK cinemas on September 23, 2022.