Hong Sang-soo’s been one of my favorite directors since I watched his movie, The Woman Who Ran (2020). I think his work is so unique not just for the daring way it experiments with temporality and continuity, always refusing to fall into narrative’s conventional trappings, but also because he does this in such a tender and intimate way. He often meditates on huge themes such as gender, mortality and class, but does so by capturing microscopic rhythms within the everyday. A drink with coworkers turns philosophical, a visit from a sibling opens old wounds characters aren’t prepared to deal with. His films don’t just offer us insights into topics he’s obsessed over for quite a while, but are glimpses at the fabric of life itself. Though he’s been on a wildly prolific run as of late, this year’s one to remember for the Korean auteur; he’s released four films in the span of twelve months. This is impressive by any standard, let alone when considering just how good each of those films is, including this one. I couldn’t help but be filled with a sense of wonder and emotion watching In Front of Your Face. This feels like the movie Hong has been working towards his entire career.
When a dying actress returns to her hometown for a family visit, and perhaps accept one last starring role, she’s not besieged by melodrama as one would expect. Instead, in typical Hong fashion, our expectations are turned upside down. This is best demonstrated when the director she’s meeting with begins to cry after learning she only has months left, and it’s her who comforts him, insisting that life is all about being grateful for the present moment, not worrying about the past or future. “I believe heaven is hiding in front of our faces,” she tells him. This is an idea that’s echoed throughout the movie (hence the title); and while it may seem simple, I think Hong does a great job at showing just how hard it is to stay present in a world that can be so demanding. We have jobs, we have families and friends, houses, money problems. How can we possibly stay focused on the here-and-now? It’s by engaging with this question that Hong produces one of his most impactful cinematic achievements to date.
The philosophical aspects of this film are heavily supported by the visuals. We often find the characters awash in seas of green, be it trees swaying in the wind, or fields of grass that seem endless. One of the film’s first scenes shows the actress and her sister stumbling upon a field of flowers in full bloom. There’s something to be said about how Hong focuses on these aspects of natural beauty, which are known to be cyclical and temporary. Flowers wilt, trees lose all their leaves—but none of that matters, because right now they’re beautiful, and if we can’t learn to appreciate that, we’re missing the point. His camerawork has always avoided flashy movements, eschewing overly-slick pans or fancy crane shots. While this can likely be attributed to a matter of budgeting, I think it’s smart that Hong (who not only produced, wrote and directed this, but also handled the cinematography, music and editing) crafted this story to really suit this stripped-down style. By simply placing the camera on a tripod, he’s encouraging us to live in the present, not unlike the characters.
I can’t say we get closure at the film’s ending, but in a story like this, who would want that? Instead, Hong ends on a note of tenderness and connection, which, after watching this film, is what we start to understand is the real essence of life. There’s a layer of the political here. By encouraging viewers to shrug off the trappings of neoliberal capitalism—which places so many of us in an incredibly fast-paced environment, making the future something to worry about (bills, court dates, our next promotion, etc.)—and instead enjoy our time with loved ones, embracing the fact that tomorrow is not promised, Hong is making a commentary on contemporary life as he sees it. This isn’t to say that this movie is an anti-capitalist diatribe, or that it’s an outwardly political film, but even the fact that its pacing is reminiscent of what many would call 'slow cinema,' resisting marketability and commodification, hints at an underlying politic that’s present in all of Hong’s work, but is perhaps never more successful than it is here.
As I said before, it feels as though many of the director’s past works have been building towards this film. It’s as tender and intimate as his earlier work, but is very cohesive and accessible, which is something his past movies lacked. I feel as though Power of the Kangwon Province (1998) or even Grass (2018) got so wrapped up in their experimental, nuanced aspects that the story itself was lost. That doesn’t happen here. Mortality, love, family, class, gender. These themes are all so thoughtfully and consistently engaged by Hong’s signature light touch, creating a viewing experience that’s immersive while still allowing room for the viewer. It’s a beautiful film, made by a director who’s clearly been thinking about art and life, and how the two are connected. The acting, the cinematography and the writing are all so purposeful and effective, making it a gem in a career full of astounding offerings. After watching this film, one realizes what a movie can really be, and how life is a priceless, temporary, gift. We’re only here for a moment, so enjoy it. In Front of Your Face is now available to be rented online, or purchased as a Blu-ray disc, and I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.