The Woman Who Ran (Review)

Few films represent the complexity of everyday human interactions as well as Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran. It is a film that asks a lot from its viewer but one that rewards in the process, presenting an effortlessly real but deeply cerebral portrait of everyday life.

This is a narrative-light film, we follow Gam-hee (an excellent Kim Min-hee) as she spends – according to her – the first real time she has ever spent away from her husband since their marriage. He is away on a business trip and Gam-hee takes this opportunity to catch up with old friends. What this means is a film made up of conversations, and that is really it. We see Gam-hee arrive at different places, get some atmospheric establishing shots and then we have long static shots (with the occasional zoom or pan) of people talking. The reason I said ‘according to her’ is that The Woman Who Ran is an exercise in subjectivity and what is not said. As mentioned, this is almost entirely conversation, but these conversations are almost strictly surface level, representing careful verbal navigations around sensitive topics. What we do get, though, is a number of insightful snapshots into different stages and circumstances.

This might sound dry, and it will not work for many, but if you have the patience, there is so much here. The way that the characters do not talk about topics and talk round them – or merely allude to things – is fascinating. Few films capture conversation as a social game and this does it so well. We are confronted with how these interactions are balancing acts defined by facades and mistruths. The joy here is in seeing the delicate way topics are handled and infrequent deviations into charged topics. Certain comments seem to be snide or charged, but go unexplained, leaving so much open. It is a film that oozes history and constantly evokes a wider context in such a rich way. The conversations are banal but trying to figure them out, and what is being avoided or implied, becomes fascinating. It actually mirrors social interactions in a very specific, and cinematically unique, way. The variety of conversations are also interesting, as we see the different topics that come up in different contexts and how the same topics are dealt with in different ways, and how facades slip or are built.

The highlight of the film, and this sounds odd, is a conversation about feeding a cat. A neighbour arrives with a clear complaint: he does not want the family in the house to feed stray cats anymore because his wife is scared of cats. The conflict being, the family that live there do want to feed the cats. What follows is a careful ballet where the characters inch closer and closer to just saying what they want, but keep backing away. It feels like a miniature military campaign, an epic standstill, and it is only heightened by the long static shot that perfectly echoes the purgatorial limbo of a conversational impasse. The shot is also composed so as to keep the cat in frame, wandering about as they are talked about. Why this conversation works so well is that the arguments put forward, very delicately, to keep feeding the cat link brilliantly to past scenes. We have got to know these characters through conversation and we can predict how they will react – and know why they are saying certain things. We have seen the animals they keep and have heard them talk about vegetarianism, and connections with cows that are held back by our bodies (the conversations get weird in the way conversations always get when you are solely trying to evade elephants in the room). This all feeds into this later interaction and gives it depth and substance, imbuing the everyday with growth and importance. The coup de grace though is a playful zoom at the end, when both characters have left we zoom in on the happy – and let us say, clearly not underfed – cat. They sit calmly and contentedly and we are left to make up our own minds.

This is the film as a whole though. It is full of silences and gaps in which the viewer is left to react and presume. This only works though because of the naturalism of the filmmaking – no mean feat – and the wonderful combination of a great script and the right actors. The conversations feel truly ordinary but they also feel cleverly constructed in a way that always evokes thought and interest. Yes, it is a slow film and somewhat one-note. However, it does, in its stillness and distance – in its presentation of the banal – capture something very real about humanity. We have this character reconnecting with people from her past in a stilted and uneven way, in a way that presents how people move on and change, and presents how our past history defines the present. Again, it is not a film for all, but it is a focused and intentional work that is very easy to admire.

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