In Front of Your Face, the latest film by Hong Sangsoo, opens with an image of restraint: in the stillness of an early morning, Sangok (Lee Hyeyoung)—a middle-aged former actor who returns to Seoul after many years abroad in the US—delicately places her hand next to that of her sleeping sister Jeongok (Jo Yoonhee), pulling her fingers back just before they would touch. It is an exceptionally poignant scene that manages to visualize the film’s central narrative conflict, which deals with a momentous secret that Sangok keeps to herself until the film’s final act. But it also emblematizes the Korean auteur’s masterfully restrained filmmaking style, one that distills the film’s emotional core through the simplest actions and camera movements.
Sangok and Jeongok have breakfast at a nearby scenic cafe. Small talk soon turns to revelations about Sangok’s past—after running off with a man she hardly knew, she has spent her most recent days working in a liquor store—and Jeongok’s resentment of having been left behind in Korea. It doesn’t take long, however, for the sisters to silently reconcile over their shared love of Jeongok’s son, Sangok’s only nephew. From there, over the course of the same afternoon, we follow Sangok as she visits her nephew’s rice cake shop, seeks out her childhood home (turned into a boutique shop), and meets with a filmmaker (Kwon Haehyo) eager to speak with her.
The last third of the film is set in an empty cafe in which the filmmaker offers Chinese food and baijiu (a change from the green soju bottles typically lining the tables of Hong’s films), confessing that he has long admired Sangok as an actress and wants to cast her in a film. It is here that Sangok, cheeks flushed from alcohol, unceremoniously reveals her secret. In a way, this is nothing new from Hong—the most memorable and consequential moments of his films often come from a meal with alcohol involved—but I don’t remember being as affected by one of his drinking sequences since Hill of Freedom (2014).
During their conversation, Sangok tells the filmmaker that she enjoyed his films, comparing them to short stories. It’s hard not to think that Hong is using that line to describe his own filmmaking, or at least the words others have used to describe him. Like a short story, In Front of Your Face makes a lot out of very little. It is a masterclass in economical filmmaking (there are approximately six locations used throughout the film), and a reminder that Hong is not only among the best filmmakers working today, but also simply one of cinema’s greatest storytellers, who can consistently sum up our absurd and incredible human experience in less than 90 minutes.
In Front of Your Face screens this weekend, October 2 and 3, at the New York Film Festival.