Cannes 2021 review: In Front of Your Face (Hong Sang-soo)

An aging actress with a terminal illness returns to her home country after spending several years abroad and reconnects with her estranged sister. This basic premise may remind some cinephiles of an ambitious Cassavetes drama with lengthy confrontations, or perhaps of a playfully melodramatic spectacle by Pedro Almodóvar. In Hong Sang-soo’s latest film In Front of Your Face (Dangsin Eolgul Apeseo), however, this familiar homecoming is presented in characteristically modest yet eventually affecting fashion. Unveiled in the newly-minted Cannes Première section, this deceptively simple drama offers one of Hong’s most evocative and spiritual works in recent years.

Hong’s interest in faith and spirituality can be traced back to his earlier films (a notable example being Kim Min-Hee’s monologue in the lovely taxi sequence from 2017’s Cannes contender The Day After), but the Korean auteur has never grappled with questions of religion and mortality as directly as he does here. Sangok, the elegant actress at the center of the story, declares in the very first scene that everything she sees before her is “grace.” Later in the film, the owner of a restaurant is described as a “woman who has faith in people,” a film director repeatedly mentions God’s “blessings,” and Sangok’s prayer-like voiceover provides brief deviations from the extended dialogue exchanges that otherwise occupy the bulk of the running time. In the titular scene, she even explains that “heaven is hidden in front of our faces.” Sangok’s inner thoughts and the conversations she has with others all revolve around the key idea of finding joy in life, appreciating the small gifts that we often fail to notice.

But crucially, this is a quietly philosophical film rather than an overtly religious or moralistic one. There is no bitterness or regret in Sangok’s words, she isn’t trying to heal any wounds. Appreciating the beauty of life is a universal theme that has fascinated filmmakers with diverse approaches to spirituality for decades. Like many masters before him, Hong is more interested in the poetic, deeply humane rediscovery of the quotidian details that make life worth living (as opposed to a preachy story of religious awakening). Seen from this point of view, perhaps the most relevant reference point for this film comes from an unlikely source: In Front of Your Face would make a wonderful double bill with Abbas Kiarostami’s Golden Palm-winning modern classic The Taste of Cherry (1997), which similarly deals with a protagonist who embarks on a journey before his pending death and emerges with a new understanding of how valuable the present moment really is. It is no coincidence that a scene in which Sangok remembers a desperate memory from her youth strongly resembles a pivotal conversation near the end of Kiarostami’s masterpiece.

There is no yesterday or tomorrow for Sangok; all she aspires to do is to truly see the world in front of her, to seize the present moment as fully as possible. This attempt proves more complicated than it sounds as her efforts are often incompatible with the workings of the world around her. Every character Sangok encounters over the course of a single day seems unable to let go of the past and is obsessed with what the future has in store for them. Sangok’s sister mentions a new condominium in construction and advises her to buy a new apartment. Needless to say, she is very surprised and somewhat disappointed to learn that Sangok has no savings in the bank for such a long-term investment. The film director who offers a new role to Sangok plans to write the screenplay in six to twelve months, with the eventual goal of filming the project in a future that will never arrive for the actress. In other scenes, Sangok repeatedly encounters reminders of her past; a young woman remembers seeing her on television, a visit to her childhood home brings back old memories. Throughout the film, Sangok remains the only character who is able to live in the present. Everyone else appears to be constantly preoccupied with either the past or the future.

Admirers of Hong’s work usually find pleasure in unpacking the complex narrative structures that add a layer of sophistication to even the leanest of his films. Hong is well-known for the non-chronological, fragmented stories he tells, his tendency to use multiple variations of similar scenes that double back on each other, and the fluidity of his transitions between dreams and reality. In Front of Your Face, on the other hand, is an unusually linear, deceptively straightforward work. There are a number of hints about Hong’s interest in the mechanics of storytelling; a key scene takes place in a restaurant named ‘Novel’ and the film director is said to make films that resemble short stories. The concluding scenes repeat some shots from the opening of the film, bringing Sangok’s story a sense of closure despite its loose ends. There is also some mention of a nice dream, which Sangok’s sister considers to be a good omen, but the details of the dream are not revealed on screen. However, while such details can bring more playful Hong experiments to mind, In Front of Your Face remains restrained and committed to linear storytelling.

As a technical package, In Front of Your Face looks and sounds as rough as Hong’s other recent films. The small scale of the production and the merely serviceable crafts contributions will come as no surprise to the director’s loyal followers, but they nevertheless diminish the impact of a film that seems more poetic or touching on paper than it does on screen. But in its own deliberately plain, sometimes frustratingly unpolished way, In Front of Your Face manages to articulate complex ideas about accepting what the present moment offers and appreciating the inherent beauty of the world around us.