Long-term admirers of minimalist auteur Hong Sang-soo won’t be particularly surprised to learn that the title of Hill of Freedom refers not to a solemn historical landmark but a back alley Seoul coffee shop which becomes an intersection for a typically unassuming romantic drama. Peppered with Hong’s usual wry observations and situational hallmarks, this whimsical Eric Rohmer riff details the quest of a Japanese visitor to find his soul mate after some time apart. His efforts form a perfectly engaging trifle which ambles charmingly around the director’s preferred haunts from a foreign perspective as chance encounters play out in stilted yet revealing English.
The story is largely told in flashbacks via a series of undated letters written by unemployed language teacher Mori (Ryo Kase) to former colleague and lover Kwon (Seo Young-hwa). Returning to her school following a break in the countryside, she collects the letters, only to drop them on the stairs. As she reads through them in non-chronological order, the viewer gets a scrambled account of Mori’s recent trip to Soeul, during which he wrote the letters in lieu of not being able to find Kwon. We learn that Mori spent a couple of weeks at a modest but comfortable guesthouse run by elderly landlady Gu-ok (Youn Yuh-jung), befriended her broke nephew Sang-won (Kim Eui-sung) and had a fling with Young-sun (Moon So-ri), a former actress who owns the titular coffee shop.
For the most part, it’s about as uneventful as it sounds with the usual scenes of eating, drinking and smoking linked by a voice-over from Mori which is occasionally self-aware but also serves to emphasize the quotidian nature of his stay in Seoul. Interestingly, our Japanese protagonist is a cultural outsider but not new to Seoul which makes the typically flat compositions of regular Hong cinematographer Park Hong-yeol appropriate for a tale of a former foreign resident for whom the place no longer holds any allure. Initially imbued with a sense of romantic purpose and without touristic needs, Mori settles into a pattern of limited movement – trying to find Kwon at her apartment and place of work, lounging around the guest house, and reading a book at the coffee shop. The book is called Time, which suggests Mori has a thoughtful personality while indicating that Hong is again toying with temporality. Despite the disorder, a sense of mundane routine is conveyed, alleviated by Mori’s interactions with curious locals.
As most of the dialogue is in English, conversations have a tendency to lurch from the inconsequential to the deeply honest to the downright blunt as Mori strives to be respectful while maintaining his entrenched point of view on various topics. Kase, whose previous international credits include Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and the Michel Gondry segment of Tokyo! (2008), is terrific as the kind of reserved visitor who unwittingly projects an air of mystery, mining droll amusement from halting exchanges with his scene partners. He struggles to accept superficial cultural platitudes from Gu-ok, who claims to like Japanese people on the basis that they are polite and clean, and must contend with Sang-won’s crudely uproarious speculation about a young woman who is also staying at the guest house. Mori’s dalliance with Young-sun finds Hong once again illustrating male failings as his nobly professed devotion to Kwon is almost forgotten once the besotted café owner (played in effervescent fashion by Moon) makes none too subtle advances. The proceedings may be enveloped in a sentimental score by Jeong Yong-jin, but it wouldn’t be a Hong film without a dash of narcissism.
There is a sequential logic to the non-linear structure of these scenes and viewers will be able to assemble the pieces together based on the matter of a lost dog, levels of familiarity between characters, or what color T-shirt Mori is wearing. Yet this is not so much a puzzle as Hong illustrating Mori’s sense of dislocation. Given the fair amount of alcohol that Mori consumes, the structure reflects how one often recounts anecdotes from trips when much of the jaunt was spent inebriated.
At a trim 66 minutes, Hill of Freedom slips into that under-occupied sweet spot between short and (by contemporary standards) feature to provide the ideal distraction at a time when even the most ardent cineaste is probably only managing incremental breaks from the news cycle.
Hill of Freedom receives a virtual cinema release on June 12 from Grasshopper Film.
John Berra is lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15), co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has also contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).