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Hill of Freedom

Hill of Freedom (2014) by Hong Sang-soo

Hong Sang-soo's cinema is very peculiar to the uninitiated. Unlike the films of other current staples of the festival circuit, Hong appears very primitive and dull on the surface. While Hong is a proponent of the static long take, this take doesn't have the grandiose scale of a Hou Hsiao-Hsien long take. It feels more like someone left the camera and forgot to turn it off. Hong's images aren't particularly revolutionary. His photography in Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors is beautiful, but hardly new, hardly daring. It seems peculiar that the festival circuit would give birth to the careers of someone like Hong Sang-soo around the same time that Pedro Costa was becoming popular.

There's a childish aspect to Hong's films. Hill of Freedom, his breezy latest feature, begins with bright, warm colors and scribbled text that reminds one of an elementary school classroom. The classical music that inscribes itself to the film's image periodically and jarringly holds no pretensions that one would expect from this traditionally heavy-handed technique. Instead, the music bounces off of the image, creating a hilarious and peculiar guessing game with the characters' emotions. The director is insisting, repeatedly, that he knows nothing about these people, he's placing himself deceptively at the vantage of a child, and it's one of the key features of Hong's cinema.

Hill of Freedom's overall trajectory is simple and hardly worrisome to discuss, the strengths of the work lie far beneath the surface. A Japanese man, Mori, spends a two week vacation in Seoul while looking for a woman he loves. After returning from a trip, she is able to catch Mori just as he's about to leave, and they reunite and, according to Mori's narration, they get married and have two kids. This has the basic shape of an Eric Rohmer film, reminiscent of My Night at Maud's, especially in the way that the development of marriage comes about nearly instantly and without the emotional consent of the audience. Another Rohmerian conceit is the relationship that Mori briefly has with a cafe owner, which makes the overall narrative form nearly exactly like Rohmer's Six Moral Tales. The moment to moment structure reflects an Alain Resnais film, however. It's told via letters that Mori writes that were scattered and now are being read out of order. It's part of Hong's narrative scrambling and experimentation habits that come off more as playful (again, like a child) than as deeply emotional like Resnais.

These references aren't mere signposts or inserts from western critics, they are actually crucial to what Hong is doing here. Hill of Freedom is largely about what culture means in the modern world. Mori is frequently mistaken for a Korean person while on his trip and he knows little more than one word in Korean. Most of the film takes place in awkward, broken English exchanges between Mori and Koreans. This further informs and pronounces Hong's distancing techniques. Everything Mori says feels like a half-felt truth because of the way it is expressed. When watching films in Eastern languages, Western audiences often have a very difficult time understanding tones. The effect is even more pronounced by he reading of subtitles. There are several layers of translation that occur before the idea is transmitted to the audience, it's one of the reasons that the directors that garner the most acclaim in the western world are the most visually focused (another thing that makes Hong a peculiar exception). Hill of Freedom brilliantly reverses this in its use of English, essentially asking its English speaking audience to translate everything back into Japanese, because the English is nonsense.

The most ironic moment in Hill of Freedom, a film filled with irony and off-centered humor, comes in an encounter between Mori and an American. The American, of course, is fluent in Korean, and is really the only character who is able to communicate properly. Hong is both creating moments of peculiar belly humor, and suggesting the state of national and global culture. To Hong, culture is no longer geographic as it was, it's not even historical. Culture is an aesthetic, a commodity to some. Those with privilege have the freedom to consume and adopt whatever culture they choose. It's the ultimate form of mobility in a sense, but it is also the ultimate annihilator of history. This explains why Mori also appears without the slightest sentiment of national guilt for Japan's past treatment of Korea. His nation's history is not his own, and he's free to choose whatever history he wants for himself. He literally writes his own history before the narrative proper begins.

If someone were to choose to watch the film as a playful and awkward vacation, Hill of Freedom would be a fun and breezy time, but Hong, in many ways, is a covert artist. The film has several volumes of subtext. Every seemingly naturalistic angle and every seemingly unnaturalistic spoken line (I've been told by Korean speakers that Hong's Korean dialogue is not very naturalistic either) has a political and cultural intent. Hong's appeal is not aesthetic in a traditional sense, but in the way his aesthetic functions as a gift wrapped several times over. Each new revelation reveals something new and something unfinished.

I will add pictures to this post later when I'm at my other computer