For those unfamiliar with the work of South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, his movies typically go something like this: some demotic people get together and drink a lot, and they talk about their menial lives and discuss the profundities of nothing in particular, and in between those moments nothing happens. Sometimes there’s a dog. And it’s hysterical.
Hill of Freedom (which is not, as its title might suggest, a war film, should you make that false assumption) offers a 66-minute distillation of the essence of Sang-soo. It prominently features his masterfully static, unshowy shots of people talking, and his frequent, (purportedly) arbitrary zoom interruptions to capture the malaise and euphoria of everyday relationships. Here, he’s flensed the fat (not that there’s ever much fat in his films) and left us a dauntless display of virtuoso banality.
Mori (Ryô Kase), a young Japanese man who doesn’t speak Korean, travels to South Korea to meet a woman who rejected him two years earlier. But unbeknownst to Mori, that woman, Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), has taken an extended leave to seek medical help from a pastor who also happens to be a doctor. Mori writes a series of undated letters to Kwon, which Kwon promptly drops upon receiving. The letters get scattered on a staircase; a brief lingering shot insinuates that one letter might go unnoticed. Kwon collates the letters, now out of order, and reads them. They begin thus: “I’m sending these letters to you because they are for you.” The letters don’t get much more exciting than that, and yet Sang-soo makes the utter boringness of Mori’s interactions uproarious.
Culturally dislocated and painfully lonely, Mori goes on a meandering, Sisyphean non-adventure, told in non-linear vignettes (each scene is derived from one of the letters, and based on his letters, Mori is no Melville or Murakami). Mori strikes up a relationship with a young cafe owner named Young-sun (Moon So-ri) and sparks a friendship with Sangwon (Eui-Sung Kim, clearly relishing the way he gets to use the word ‘bitch’ without a shred of remorse), both of whom wax drunken philosophical with Mori, musing on love, loss, life, and the artifice of time.
Hill of Freedom (named after the cafe Young-sun owns) derives its humor from the halting, broken English in which the characters must speak to one another, but its soul is rooted in the intrinsic loneliness engendered by the language barrier. The characters ostensibly speak with all the punctuality and precision of drunken high school drama students, but the actors deliver their lines with calculated syncopation. They deftly speak poorly, with the jokes always hitting at the exact wrong (right) moment.
Sang-soo offers a kind of alternative to the mumblecore genre, giving us characters that orally stumble instead, and exchange salty-sweet nothings. Everyone comes off as awkward and solipsistic, since they can only communicate in broken English, usually drunkenly. (“Me fail English? That’s unpossible,” as Ralph Wiggum so keenly puts it.) The film quickly gets into a rhythm, and the laughs come long as regularly as a train on schedule. Watching, or rather listening to Mori and his coterie of meandering friends try to make sense of racial differences (“I like Japanese because they’re clean and polite,” Mori’s guest house host says; “I don’t like Koreans because they’re dishonest,” Mori responds, before rectifying his blanket statement) is an ab workout. Song-soo has once again created a world that vaguely resembles modern South Korea; here jokes often have no punch-lines, people struggle to permeate language barriers, and communication is achieved through a sort of verbal osmosis.
Akin to Arrested Development, with which it shares several aesthetic and tonal frequencies, Hill of Freedom is oh so subtly lacerated by culturally-conscious wit. Stemming from Mori and his friends’ utterly inconsequential interactions are stone-faced cracks at Korean and Japanese modernity — their gender politics, the pervasion of smoking, jingoistic isolation. Hong-soo’s had fifteen films and thirty years to hone his craft; his newest is terse but hefty, accessible and rife with self-awareness.
Of course, the deadpan wit and sly cultural criticism wouldn’t go down so easily, like so much sake, if we didn’t care about the characters. This is, after all, a character-driven gab fest. We really do come to empathize with Mori, who seems like a good guy. Even if Kwon and the others aren’t as fleshed-out, they still have enough fervor and color to make an impression, and in 66 minutes they all make a hell of an impression.
Moviegoers already initiated into the Hong-soo crew might find Hill of Freedom redundant within the context of his previous fifteen films, but it’s hysterical and wickedly intelligent in its depiction of everyday stupidity. What more could you want from Hong-soo? From any film?
— Greg Cwik