The Woman Who Ran (South Korea, 2020) [SDAFF 2020]

The Woman Who Ran presents the significant details of being Hong Sang-soo’s twenty-fourth film in twenty-four years, which is certainly a feat for any filmmaker, established or aspiring. Yet just as important is the fact the The Woman Who Ran is his seventh film and collaboration with actress Kim Min-hee since 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then. Various critics have noted the more relaxed tone (while still being rather dramatic, such as in The Day After [2017]) that has developed in Hong’s work in the last couple of years, and one can chalk up such a development to Hong himself. But Kim’s role in such a development must also be considered, especially given the vulnerable yet strong and steadfast screen persona that she embodies in her collaborations with Hong, whatever the situation that her character is facing. For if the tone and pacing of the Hong-Kim collaborations are manifestly more relaxed, they are also palpably more, well, thoughtful about women and women’s perspectives. Consequently, they are a far, far cry from Hong Sang-soo’s earlier filmography emblematised by Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), and even of the late 2000s and early 2010s such as Night and Day (2008) and The Day He Arrives (2012), whose films feature maladjusted, even stunted, and appalling treatment and/or understanding of women. As Phillip Lopate writes of On the Beach At Night Alone (2017), as the film self-reflexively lays bare Hong’s personal situation and practically calls upon the viewer to pass judgment on him, at the same time, “it enters so deeply and sympathetically into the woman’s point of view.” Further on in the same piece, Lopate expresses the idea that Hong “seems to be exploring through [Kim’s] roles a piece of his own transcendental yearning.”

“Transcendental yearning” may be stretching it, but with The Woman Who Ran, Hong and Kim present what is arguably the auteur’s most female-centric work, focused as it is on female friendship and comparative perspectives on a woman’s sense of self(-awareness), as an individual and within the context of a relationship. The film revolves around a series of conversations between women, between friends, each conversation dictated by setting and situation but all of them easy-going and warm, as befitting the concept of amity. Only on three occasions do conversations between a man and a woman take place, and all three are characterised by a latent antipathy, or even hostility, thus contrasting even more so from the rest of the film’s concentration on even-tempered and empathetic conversations amongst women. Connecting and inviting such comparative female perspectives on one’s sense of self and self-awareness is the fact that all of the main characters are linked through Gam-hee, played by Kim.

Gam-hee, five years into married life, finds herself on her own for the first time since marriage when her husband goes on a business trip for a couple of days. Left to her own devices, Gam-hee goes about visiting, conversing, and/or having meals with several friends who live outside of Seoul. Her first visit is to Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa). Divorced, contented, and distant from the city bustle of Seoul, she goes out only when she needs something and prefers to putter around her garden located near her apartment, which she shares with a roommate. Gam-hee then visits Su-young (Song Seon-mi), newly established in her respective apartment and a Pilates instructor who occasionally produces dance performances. Having lived with her mother for a long time, she is basking in having her own space and time, to fill it however she likes. And, finally, Gam-hee unexpectedly encounters Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk) at a small cinema + café where the latter works and whose history is marked by the fact that Woo-jin ended up marrying Gam-hee’s former partner, Song-gu (Kwon Hae-hyo). Unsettled by the chance encounter with Gam-hee, Woo-jin is frank yet tender in addressing their awkwardly shared past through Song-gu.

Contrary to expectations, Gam-hee is not the woman to whom the title refers; nor is it any of her aforementioned friends. Instead, the “woman who ran” is mentioned ever so casually, ever so anecdotally, during Gam-hee’s first visit to Young-soon. As Young-soon recounts, one night, a neighbouring woman left her husband and daughter, never to return. The woman simply left her marriage and family, her departure unexplained and her absence unresolved. That the film’s title is brought up in such an ephemeral, gossamer-like moment can be read as almost accidental. But because the anecdote is brought up so early in the film and the fact that the film itself begins (as the viewer discovers during Young-soon’s recounting) with a conversation between Young-soon and the absent woman’s daughter, this unnamed, unseen woman becomes a lingering presence throughout the rest of the film and in fact underwrites the film’s concern with sense of self and self-awareness.

In the face of Gam-hee’s stable married existence, it may seem at first glance that the lives of Young-soon, Su-young, and Woo-jin are the ones being scrutinised and paling in comparison. After all, how is a woman’s life fulfilled if not through marriage (and children)? Though Woo-jin is also married, she openly expresses her displeasure at her husband’s increasing celebrity as a writer and critiques his saying the same details over and over again in his television appearances. In reply, Gam-hee asks, “If he keeps on repeating himself, how can he be sincere?”

Yet Gam-hee’s remark to Woo-jin about her husband is pivotal to realising the film’s subtler consideration of Gam-hee’s own sense of self, precisely through her conversations with friends and, implicitly, the anecdote of the woman who left. For her remark becomes all too ironic since she herself becomes guilty of such repetition by the time this third encounter and conversation takes place. As she does not fail to mention in each of her conversations with friends, she and her husband (notably as nameless as the woman who left) had never been apart from each other, not even a day, since they were married; a couple should not do otherwise if they are in love, according to her husband, and why should she think otherwise? Unlike Gam-hee’s friends, Hong makes the viewer witness to this repetition and thus poised to apply her own comment to her: if she keeps on repeating herself, how can she be sincere?

Significantly, though, at no point is the film judgmental about Gam-hee or any of the other women in the film, including the titular one. The film invites the viewer to wonder at the irony of Gam-hee’s remark and pursue it as far as they would like – or not; the same applies to what prompted Young-soon’s divorce, Su-young to become intimate with the insistent poet who pleads at her door, or the details of Gam-hee, Woo-jin, and Song-gu’s love triangle. By casually mentioning or showing such situations and just as easily setting them aside, the film does not define any of the women strictly in terms of romantic relationships. Above all else, it emphasises them as individuals and friends.

The Woman Who Ran was shown as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival which ran from October 23-31.