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Love, Alienation and Patriarchy in Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran (2020)

Hong Sang-soo is easily one of the most prolific filmmakers not just in South Korea, but perhaps in the entire history of film. Today I’ll be discussing his twenty-first full-length feature—which he directed, wrote, scored, produced and edited—2020’s winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director, The Woman Who Ran. While the film itself is unbelievably subtle, described by some as enigmatically so, I think this movie provides viewers with a ton of food for thought regarding gender relations, class society and the politics of personal relationships.

In the opening scene, a woman asks her neighbor if her face is puffy, and becomes distraught when the neighbor confirms it is. She’s worried appearances will blow her shot at an important job interview later that morning. This notion of power and the male gaze is present throughout the film, such as towards the end when one of Woojin’s friends tells her she’s nervous about interviewing a successful male writer because he’s “very smart,” or when we’re introduced to Gam-hee, the film’s protagonist, as she meets a friend for the first time in a while and says “whenever I meet up with someone I say things I don’t need to say and do things I don’t need to do, I’m sick of it,” revealing the mental and emotional toll of performing femininity, how socially isolating it can be to feel a constant pressure to edit one’s personality to meet gender norms. Perhaps this is why, as Gam-hee waits for her friend to finish cooking, all she can say is “I’m hungry,” potentially hinting at a deeper existential yearning. While many attempt to satisfy this craving through romance, Hong Sang-soo lets us know that isn’t the answer: all of Gam-hee’s friends are either single, divorced or in the midst of a romantic crisis, and she’s not much better off.

Early in the film we learn she literally hasn’t spent a second away from her husband in the past 5 years. The only reason she’s doing so now is because he’s on a business trip and wanted time for himself. While it’s unclear if this is why she hasn’t seen her friends in so long—though she admits he doesn’t like many of her friends—it is noteworthy that anytime someone expresses incredulity that anyone could spend so long with another person, all she can say is “it’s what he wants,” making it clear it’s not what she wants. We’re not even positive Gam-hee is happy in her marriage, in fact we get plenty of clues that she’s not, such as when her friend asks if she loves her husband, and she responds by admitting “I don’t know. I feel some love each day. I think it’s enough,” showing that the alienation we feel in class society can’t be solved by romance alone. Romance will only complicate things, because what most seek to escape is a deeper alienation: from ourselves and our own desires, our dreams. Hong Sang-soo’s film seems to comment how this alienation is only magnified by the patriarchal social relations characters and viewers find themselves in.

Gender relations are undoubtedly being examined in this movie. The first instance we get of this is when Gam-hee’s friend mentions her neighbor’s chickens—the ones which constitute the film’s initial shot—and describes how the male chicken terrorizes the females “just to prove he’s strongest,” pecking their necks and chasing them around the coop. There are echoes of this moment when the friends’ neighbor knocks on their door, insisting that they please stop feeding homeless cats, even threatening to file a formal complaint on them to the apartment complex. Later in this same scene, another neighbor comes over to get comfort from Gam-hee’s friend, and we learn this is because her father is “scary.” The morning after this visit, Gam-hee awakes to the sound of a rooster crowing outside her window, setting an almost ominous tone, as if the entire outside world is colored by patriarchal violence. One thing I greatly appreciated about The Woman Who Ran is how it tracks said violence even across class lines.

When visiting her next friend, Gam-hee mentions how fancy the woman’s house is, and learns that her friend was able to save over a million dollars, proudly saying “Now I can buy whatever I want,” but it seems peace of mind is not one of these things. She still faces threats from a stalker, a poet who she had a one night stand with, and is worried that he’ll tell her current boyfriend who, not wanting a ‘cheap’ woman, might dump her upon learning of this old fling. Again, we see the male gaze operating in an almost omnipotent way, shaping the way these women move through and interact with the world around them.

It’s also worth noting that no woman actually runs in this film—at least not literally. Perhaps Gam-hee is the woman who ran, desperate to reconnect with friends and herself the second her husband is away. This notion of escaping the male power structures of society is most present in the film’s final moments, when—at a movie theater—Gam-hee encounters the writer that caused a previous character so much worry and finds him to be extremely abrasive. Apparently her ex-lover, the writer asks “how could you come here,” assuming she was trying to follow him and not simply watch a movie. When Gam-hee tells him that “you should really just stop talking” so she can explain, viewers are most directly presented with the necessity of listening to women’s perspectives; perhaps that’s why so much of the film is composed of dialogues captured via straightforward camerawork and a trimmed-down cinematography.

Overall, this film is an amazing feat in how it navigates such complex issues so subtly and tactfully. The Woman Who Ran is now streaming on MUBI, watch it while you can! Additionally, Hong Sang-soo’s films will be shown at a retrospective hosted by Film at Lincoln Center in New York City. I’ll be travelling to cover one of the many double features included on this event, so if you enjoy this film be sure to keep an eye out for that dispatch!


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