Berlinale 2020 review: The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sangsoo)

On the outskirts of Seoul, Gamhee (Kim Minhee) has three encounters with old friends that she hasn’t seen in a while. Two of them were planned, the third is by chance at an independent cinema. They catch up on their lives. Gamhee tells them that there hasn’t been a day that she and her husband have been apart; this is the first time in five years. Her first two friends are without a partner, the friend she meets by chance is not: Woojin (Kim Saebyuk) is actually married to Gamhee’s former partner. Is that why the meeting wasn’t planned and why they haven’t seen each other in a long time? All the women’s conversations are interrupted by men. Unreasonable men. A neighbour who doesn’t want the stray cats to be fed, a scorned lover. The third interruption is Gamhee’s former partner. Their meeting is awkward. Could the title be about Gamhee, did she run away from him? Or is it about any of the other women, who have all left something behind?

As always, Hong Sangsoo’s 24th film is an enigmatic affair. The Woman Who Ran is a string of long takes and long conversations, with a slow-motion smash zoom here and there. There’s the self-referencing, the scenes of people watching a film. In everything, this is a Hong Sangsoo film. But he is continuing to strip down his style, getting to the essence of his tales: how the way we communicate defines our condition and who we project ourselves to be as people. The conversations are mostly surface pleasantries, but the key is in the things that are not said, especially on the part of Gamhee.

Hong has become known for his repetitions within his films (and across films), and The Woman Who Ran is no exception. All three encounters follow a similar pattern: Gamhee and the other woman have a conversation, they are disturbed by a man outside, Gamhee follows a scene between her host and another person on a CCTV. There are slight variations in the last scene, perhaps because the man in that scene is so clearly modelled on Hong himself, including a smatter of self-deprecating dialogue. But the intrusion of the men in each case is made clear. One wonders if Gamhee is actually telling the truth about her five-year marriage. Was she indeed perhaps the one who ran away from men, from these situations she now witnesses her friends living in? She barely speaks about her husband, other than saying he is on a business trip. She steers the conversations to the other women. These options are left open by Hong, deliberately, as another way of stripping the film down to just these conversations and the movement of the characters within them. In this regard The Woman Who Ran is a continuation of Hong’s recent films being reduced to their bare bones. Whether the viewer will still find some meat on those bones is a matter of taste.

Photo copyright: Jeonwonsa Film Co. Production