In Hill of Freedom, director Hong Sang-soo's sixteenth film in as many years, he again skirts stagnation through a careful reworking of familiar elements, and the subtle introduction of new ones. It is an odd thing that these films that bear so much resemblance to each other seem to grow in effectiveness when placed together, rather than diminish. Instead of inducing weariness upon the loyal returning viewer, he who has become accustomed to the director's nuanced, slight of hand style of direction comes to appreciate the barely detectable variations that seperate each entity in a developing situational universe.
Hong Sang-soo has created an oeuvre that is, for all intents and purposes, just a few basic plots, characters and situations; albeit adjusted under a lens of the most exacting acuity. It is perhaps testament to the quality of his ability to repeat, refract and rework then, that each one feels new despite being essentially the same. Hill of Freedom features some of his best acts of reinvention - a comedy of miscommunication born out of the ability of language to confuse as much as it clarifies, and of the distances between people communication serves to both bridge and widen.
Returning to a male lead after a spell of female-centric films, Hill of Freedom features Mori (Kase Ryo) a Japanese man visiting Korea in search of a woman he believes can complete him. This woman, Kwon (Seo Young-haw), largely unseen in the film, receives letters he has written; verbalising and realising a narrative than would occur only in Mori's head otherwise. That these letters by which the story is divulged (that of a ponderous, semi-pointless search for a soulmate who may or may be present, as expected or even interested - note the spanner throwing reveal of a wedding ring on her finger) are dropped, shuffled and then picked up, and then relayed out of order and out of time, should be of no surprise to a viewer familiar with Sang-soo's penchant for the structural. Sang-soo literalises protagonist Mori's interest in temporality, a subject he is often found both reading up on and clumsily lamenting over, through a puzzle-piece narrative. So much disregard is shown for chronology, cause and effect that one of the story-letters is lost when dropped. Similarly the main crux of the narrative is left to the last minute, pointedly downplayed - its finality underemphasised. The order of things we perceive is one that we prescribe.
In these films that make modest representations of aspects of lives, Hong Sang-soo affords as much importance to the minor moments and the minute details of a life as the time-line defining ones that we use to describe ourselves and our stories. When asked what makes him happy at one point, Mori claims that it is losing himself in the act of looking at flowers and trees, yet all his screen time is spent in pursuit of company, not retreat. In his waiting for lost-love Kwon, who ironically happens to depart from the town at the same time he arrives, Mori stumbles upon many other aspects of experience, including a love affair with cafe waitress Young-sun (Moon So-ri) that could be more definitive and fateful that the one with Kwon he plans on resuming. In Hill of Freedom's liberating emphasis on randomness, the minor and circumstantial is hyper-accentuated, examined under as tight a lens as a major dramatic moment would be, and through the affording of that omnipresent subject time, reveals that any given moment can show as much about the characters and their identity, given the right treatment and perspective.
If Sang-soo films flourish based on the value of the aspect altered or honed in on, then the issue that elevates here is language, and its ability to connect and separate. Utilising a non-Korean protagonist for the second time (after introducing Isabelle Huppert to his mix in 2011's_ In Another Country)_, Sang-soo explores the role of English speech in Asian cultures, notably through its role as a bridge between cultures. When Mori, a Japanese native, meets Koreans he asks that they speak English, a language they are most likely to both share to some degree. What better conceit is there to amplify the misunderstandings inherent to a Hong Sang-soo dialogue exchange than the complication of translation? Only alcohol, another mainstay of his films that is in ample supply here. Across Soju-soaked diatribes, Mori and his encountered friends collide linguistically through a number of stunted, slurred exchanges that brilliantly poke at the cultural and personal differences we experience, here amplified by the complicating factors at play. This distance, in communication and sentiment between two people, is typified in one argument that blows up in a minute, the gap in understanding between two people exploding before unifying elements can enter as to repair. In another, the neccessary directness shifts a conversation over Korean/Japanese cultural differences from hostility towards tenderness.
Indeed, in the film, language serves to clarify as much as confuse. The lingua franca spoken by the characters reduces dialogue to its most basic form, a wonderful trick by a director with an interest in simplifying his drama. It is true that people speaking English as their second language, whether for business or pleasure (something Mori is asked repeatedly about the nature of his visit), speak more truthfully and purposefully. The limitations of a reduced vocabulary mean the essence of the meaning is reached faster, and avoiding speaking the truth more becomes difficult. This directness makes Hill of Freedom one of Sang-soo's most overtly humourous features, but also one of his most bittersweet, language intensifying Mori's alienation as he struggles to verbalise what he feels, his yearnings made utterly transparent by this shortcoming. In using a bridge-language, a clumsily direct form of address, Mori is forced always to say what he means, affording him an integrity and transparency that often eludes Sang-soo's protagonists. Self-pitying, passive-aggressive and misguided he may be, he is at the very least, personable and honest.
In a particularly spartan, sub seventy minute effort from Sang-soo, his characters get quickly to the point, and so does he. This is a particularly reductionist vision from the director, wherein formal choices afford both a more direct address, and a disregard for superfluity. Sang-soo's knack is for seemingly effortlessly displaying dialogues, behaviours and sentiments that seem real and insightful, suggesting things without ever being explicit about them. Without the subtleties of a native language to disguise his intentions, the characters of Hill of Freedom engage each other with an honesty and bluntness that proves both very funny and emotionally direct. Hill of Freedom proves a concise but layered, dually comic and melancholic slice of life in which brevity should not mistaken for slightness.