In Front of Your Face (Review)

The films of Hong Sang-soo allow the past to exist in the present. Almost all of them explore an aftermath, following an incident rather than including it and instead focusing on the incidental that happens in its wake. In Front of Your Face fits into this but also exists as a precursor: the key event of this narrative is yet to happen, and will take place after the film concludes. Once again, then, the realm of the Hong Sang-soo film is the liminal, the in between state from which he gleans real humanity, the true state where most of life is lived.

As is also so often the case, Hong Sang-soo’s latest is delightfully meta. His films are so frequently about filmmakers and reflect on the process of making films. This is no different. Primarily, this is the story of an actress, one whose greatest works seem to be in the past and is currently visiting family in South Korea, after having moved away to the United States. Later, she meets with a film director. They sit and drink (it’s a Hong Sang-soo film) and the focus becomes on the need and want to make film. This echoes back onto the film itself, a Covid made film with overt constraints focusing on showcasing an individual ends up as a story about a want to make a film showcasing an individual under overt restraints. It’s not just a reflection, though, it illuminates the purpose of the film and spotlights the key theme indicated by the title: the need to be cognisant of what is around you, to live in the moment and to take it in.

A lot of the film is not new territory for director Hong, to the extent that the opening act (in as much as there is an act structure in this meandering trip through conversations and encounters) feels overtly familiar. The feeling of this being just another director Hong film with diminishing returns overhangs but the destinations the film pushes towards easily evade this. Though this lacks the structural finesse of a lot of director Hong’s wider cinema, and lacks the cinematic beauty, it does offer something different. The eventual cogitations on mortality are very impactful, and arrive so naturally. The ideas in a Hong Sang-soo film arrive as a by-product of normality, echoing through encounters that mirror the everyday. This way of appreciating his film echoes the ways we experience and find depth in our own lives.

It is a shame that the craft is at its most rudimental here. Hong Sang-soo has been stripping cinema back to its most basic elements for a while now but this is the first film that actually feels limited. The small range of cinematic techniques director Hong uses have become a precise arsenal, functioning as poetic devices or overt cinematic verbs with a clear importance. The approach may be simple but it is very intentional, a distilled cinema rather than a constrained one. Filming under recent conditions may have changed this, though the rudimentary filmmaking does pair with a later narrative point (and is at least satisfying in this way). However, the film could work better in its constraints. One scene employs a fake backdrop that is woefully unconvincing, and ultimately unnecessary. Outside of this, the simple approach masks the limited scope, though the deployment of Songian tropes (pans and zooms) don’t feel quite as intentional here as in a lot of his wider films.

In spite of this, it still works so well. And this is glorious. This is a film about realising what exists around us and about the importance of living; that the film bursts through in spite of its trappings only adds to this. For Hong Sang-soo fans, you will not get a wildly diverging experience here but you will get something satisfying. The evocation of people living their lives is as perfect as ever, made deeply compelling by the mini-events we find ourselves in. The incidental moments become suffused with real impact, as director Hong (as always) finds ways to manufacture interactions so that encounters reveal humanity. It is a real skill, and one that looks effortless. It is so easy to watch a Hong Sang-soo film and feel that nothing happens, while also feeling that he’s shown you the truth of humanity.

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