While her husband is out of town on a business trip, florist Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) decides to embark on a venture of her own to reconnect with three different old friends living across Seoul. Although reciting a script, Gam-hee routinely mentions to every friend how her and her husband haven’t spent a day apart since they married five years ago – this is her first solo trip. Received with ‘ums’ and ‘aws’ – some friends find it romantic; some think it sounds claustrophobic – Gam-hee defends it with a sigh of ‘it’s what he wants. He says people in love should stick to each other’. Visiting a recent divorcee, a Pilates teacher with a stalker on her hands, and a woman now married to Gam-hee’s old flame, Gam-hee uses this first trip without her husband as an opportunity to re-establish female friendships and reflect on love and life. Returning with his affinity for minimal, but consistent, and perceptive character studies, Hong Sang-soo crafts The Woman Who Ran to be a warming and human tale of absence, friendship, and womanhood.
Photo © CMC Pictures
The first friend Gam-hee visits is recent divorcee Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa) who lives in the northern outskirts of Seoul with her roommate, Young-ji (Lee Eun-mi). Now settled down in the shadow of the mountain Inwangsan, Young-soon is someone content with the smaller things in life; tending to her vegetable garden and feeding the neighbourhood stray cats. Chattering away over lunch and wine, the pair chit chat about old times, memories, and philosophical dilemmas of feeling guilty about eating meat – ‘aren’t [cows’] eyes beautiful’ enthuses Young-soon as they munch on grilled beef. Packing the film’s sharp 77-minute runtime full of everyday dialogue and charming musings, Hong ensures that the women’s discussions are never mundane or irrelevant. Such long strains of dialogue are often tricky to pull off but Hong’s empathetic direction and use of realistic dialogue allows scenes to feel seamless and natural.
Drifting onto the subject of chickens, discussing how a neighbour’s boisterous rooster violently pecks at the back of hens’ necks to show dominance, the women are interrupted by a man at the door. Not unlike the irritating pecking of a rooster, they’re intruded upon by a passive-aggressive neighbour complaining about Young-soon feeding the neighbourhood strays, insisting that the cats scare his agoraphobic wife. While Gam-hee is content and happy with the man she has married, The Woman Who Ran is filled with stories of men making women’s lives more difficult and women’s desperate attempts to escape from them. From the bothersome neighbour whining about stray cats, to Gam-hee’s awkward and arrogant ex, to the needy poet that hangs around outside Su-young’s (Song Seon-mi) apartment; Hong juxtaposes exhausting men and mollycoddled lovers with the relieving embraces of friendship, joy, and laughter. Hong moulds a perspective of women that is not solely shaped by their relationships with men but instead hones in on the restorative powers of female companionship; a warming call of safety far away from ringing doorbells and unwanted calls.
Photo © CMC Pictures
Divided into an episodic tryptic, Hong allocates roughly 25 minutes of screen time to each friend. Gam-hee’s most profound meeting is when she ‘accidentally’ bumps into her old friend – and now wife of Gam-hee’s ex – Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk). Awkwardly sitting across from each other at the cinema and arts centre where Woo-jin works, the pair are obviously bashful to see each other. Woo-jin mumbles a tearful apology about the past, concerning the man they’ve both loved, and Gam-hee graciously accepts – ‘I never think about the two of you’. It’s the first time Gam-hee’s conversation with an old friend focuses solely on a man but instead of adoration and sweet praises, the conversation swings to absence and pain. Woo-jin confesses to Gam-hee her inconsolable jealousy of her husband’s success as a famous author, as well as her annoyance in the fact that he loves the sound of his own voice so much. Surprised to hear about how the man she once thought she loved had changed so much, the encounter provides Gam-hee with some unexpected closure.
Hong Sang-soo’s ability to comprehend human behaviour and emotion and then translate it into cinema is as bright as ever. While The Woman Who Ran may not be full of eventful turns and rising tensions, it’s a sharp and perceptive observation of love, loss, and life. Downbeat in tempo, Hong uses slow zooms, lingering shots, and smooth and delightful conversations swapped between friends to make an astute meditation on modern life, nostalgia, and female connection.
Written by Abi Aherne
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