Hong Sang-soo plays with time and memory in Hill of Freedom, his latest melancholic delight.
At the beginning of Hong Sang-soo’s latest film, a Korean woman collects her mail from the language institute where she works and finds a treasure trove of letters from someone so dear and long lost that it brings her to tears. She falls and the papers scatter, so that when she collects them to read, they’re out of order.
The letters are from Mori (Ryo Kase), a Japanese man whom she once loved when he was teaching with her years ago. He’s returned to Korea to find her and win her back, but he spends most of his trip unable to locate her. Instead, he forges new connections with locals. When Mori meets a persistent and sweet waitress at the local cafe, which gives the film its name, a sweet romance unfolds between them. But can it last? They have lives in separate countries, and is he still pining after the one that got away? Will he ever find her? She was sick when he knew her, and given how she collapsed on receiving his letters, it seems she’s still ill. Can there be a happy ending?
Mori speaks to his new, local Korean acquaintances, including the hotel proprietor and her indebted son, in English, the lingua franca. As it’s a second language for all, they talk frankly and bluntly, unable to mask their true feelings behind polite chit-chat: it’s enough of a struggle to be understood. Hong Sang-soo shoots their conversations in long, still shots, allowing the dialogue to unfold naturally. They eat and drink in groups, and as the nights wear on, their increasingly inebriated state amplifies their candour, as well as their rolled phrases and mid-sentence stops. Occasionally, the camera zooms in or out abruptly or pivots, keeping us off balance.
Mori spends much of the film in a melancholy disposition, sleeping so much that it might be depression. The sadness lingers over the film, making us suspicious of a happily ever after, even if there’s some joy and respite along the way.
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