Review: Hill of Freedom (Hong, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

I was seduced by the description of this film on the SFIFF website as well as by the idea of seeing work by a new-to-me South Korean director. I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned before that Kim Ki-duk is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, though I haven’t seen any of his recent stuff–nothing after his 2004 3-Iron. At first glance there seems to be little common ground between Kim and other South Korean directors familiar to Western audiences, like Park Chan-wook, known for Oldboy and Stoker, or Bong Joon-ho of Snowpiercer fame. Kim’s dramas are strange, quiet, taut, and unforgiving in their existential probing. They can be violent, but the violence is a side note rather than the main event. (But, of course, that kind of casualness often makes a bigger impression.) Park’s films are louder, more overtly disturbing, and Bong’s films are traditionally more action-oriented. Still, I would call all three filmmakers bold, perhaps even visionary (at least Kim and Park).

So at the very least Hill of Freedom‘s director Hong Sang-soo is in good company. And looking at his filmography, it’s clear he’s no newb at this filmmaking thing either. Hill of Freedom‘s premise is also exactly as the SFIFF website describes it: Kwon (Seo Young-hwa) returns from a trip to a stack of letters from her Japanese ex-boyfriend Mori (Kase Ryo). Leaving her office, she accidentally drops the letters, picking them up out of order. She then goes to a cafe and starts to read them, and the movie unfolds ostensibly in the new, mixed-up chronology of the shuffled letters. Through Mori’s straightforward missives, we discover that, waiting for Kwon, he checks into a youth hostel where he befriends the proprietress (Yoon Yeo-jeong) and her degenerate nephew Sangwon (Kim Eui-sung). Initially attracted by her cute dog, he also strikes up a relationship with a cafe owner (Moon So-ri) nearby (the cafe’s name is where the film gets its title). Of course, as this all happens out of sequence, you are treated with scenes of relatively intimate friends followed by scenes of still tentative strangers, followed again by more friendliness.

That juxtaposition is fun to watch, but the fun is not quite enough to justify this elaborate experimentation in storytelling. The disruption of linear time is a concept with so much potential that to not meaningfully utilize it is to squander an opportunity in such a disappointing way that the result can only seem confusing and flat. The film’s unconventional sequencing seems incidental to almost everything else in the plot, aside from a superficial reference to the book Mori is reading. All that is to say that Hill of Freedom is not much more than an unusual romantic comedy. (And the comedy also isn’t as comedic as I’d expected.)

But the film is not without its merits. Having traveled the world for over a year, I found the stultified conversations between the film’s non-native English speakers to be cannily accurate. The actors competently portrayed the frustration of having so few words to express even normally complex thoughts, as well as the discovery that simple phrases such as “good,” “very much,” and “I like you” are ultimately adequate. (And then again, not.) Are the relationships built on such words “true,” when everyone only manages a stunted version of himself? Or, as the film may suggest, are they more true–boiled down to what is, finally, essential?

Hill of Freedom screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past spring.