September 23, 2014
The fifty-second New York Film Festival begins this Friday night with the world premiere of Gone Girl, the David Fincher adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s ubiquitous spousal murder mystery. But the early highlight of the thirty-film main slate concerns another missing woman, although in a less-outwardly-thrilling scenario. Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom, which screens the evenings of 9/30 and 10/8, concerns an unemployed Japanese intellectual in Korea, searching for an absent woman he once loved. It’s another variation on Hong’s recent string of films about travellers and transitional spaces (Our Sunhi, In Another Country, The Day He Arrives) where drinking is the main form of communication. Hill of Freedom works hilariously well as a fish-out-of-water comedy, but also contains pockets of melancholy about time’s passage, professional failure, and the inadequacy of language. It is currently without a distributor, and unlikely to acquire one, considering how poorly his sparsely distributed output has done stateside.
There is another gone girl in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (screening 10/7 and 10/9), when the daughter of a colonial Danish military engineer (Viggo Mortensen) scampers off into the Patagonian wilderness. In his three features La Libertad, Los Muertos and Liverpool, Alonso has chosen landscapes first and built narratives around the spaces and the habits of its people. Jauja is his first period piece, and an imaginative leap from the patient everydayness of his previous films. With nods to The Searchers and Heart of Darkness, Jauja follows the engineer as he plunges deeper into a country he doesn’t understand, ending in hallucinations and a legacy of confusion.
Hong Sang-soo has been paring his films down to the essentials. Never one for excess, in recent years his films have limited themselves to a few city streets, a few self-loathing men and women, and a narrative built on repetition. Hill of Freedom constricts itself to couple of blocks in Seoul, mainly taking place at a guest house and at a coffee shop. Mori (Ryo Kase) is a Japanese visitor staying at the guest house, and is searching for Kwon (Seo Young-hwa). Mori met Kwon two years before, but is only now convinced of his love for her. But unbeknownst to Mori, Kwon is off in the mountains for health reasons, so he is forced to mope around town, communicating in limited English with his deep-in-debt guest house buddy Sangwon (Kim Eui-sung) and the profoundly unhappy owner of the coffee shop (named “Hill of Freedom). The story is told in flashback, from letters that Mori wrote to Kwon after his departure from Seoul. As Kwan is leaving the post office, she drops the letters on the stairs, shuffling them out of chronological order. The film proceeds in the order Kwon reads the letters, so they jump back in forth in time during Mori’s stay. The ghost that haunts the film is the one letter Kwan leaves on the staircase – perhaps the one that reveals the truth of Mori’s intentions, but more realistically documents another night of inebriated rambles.
Mori carries a dogeared book with him throughout his visit, which he seems to treat as a sacred text, or maybe more as a binky to calm his nerves. In one of his many awkward, flirtatious conversations with the coffee shop owner Youngsun (Moon So-ri) he informs her that it is a philosophical treatise that claims “time is not a real thing.” But that “at the end, you cannot escape this frame of mind, because our brain evolved this way.” He believes that time is an illusion, a construct of our consciousness, that perhaps in reality, outside of ourselves, events occur in the shuffled manner of the narrative. It is our brains that constantly seek to arrange them in order. Mori is a failure at this kind of arranging, and at this order. He is an unemployed loner wandering Seoul, his only hope a woman he last saw years ago and who might want nothing to do with him. And in some ways Mori seems to live in his own pocket of pre-Internet time. The settings are clearly contemporary, but no one uses a cell phone, Mori hand writes his letters, and there is nary a computer in sight.
Then there is the film’s blunt use of language. The movie is almost entirely in English, the common ground for Japanese-Korean relations in this film. But this limits their vocabulary, so each conversation is abrupt and direct. Every conversation seems to begin with the question, “Business or pleasure?” Mori hems and haws through each iteration, his visit having possibly to do with neither, ending up as more misery than pleasure. When his guest house manager tells him the banality, “I hope you will enjoy your stay”, Mori cannot respond in kind. Instead, he says, “It’s not always easy to enjoy, except when I am lucky.” The bemused manager replies, “You know, I was just saying that”, implying it was a rhetorical question. But Mori is incapable of deflecting or armoring his meanings with the subtleties of his native languages. He is forced into direct statement, as are his interlocutors. Sangwon insists that Mori admit to being sad. Mori considers people to be “great” or “poison”, with no shades of grey in between. This forced directness creates quick bonds between Mori and Sangwon, who get blitzed and dream of happiness, as well as between Mori and Youngsun, whose attraction seems to be borne out of mutual melancholy. It ends as it has to, in the middle, unresolved, our minds having to put all the broken pieces together.
Jauja is equally concerned with blowing minds as puzzling them. With its pulsing colors and immersive deep focus cinematography, it’s cinema-as-sensorium. There’s a vibrant interplay in Alonso’s frames (in the old 1.33:1 aspect ratio) between background and foreground, usually with Viggo Mortensen in the front, his visage staring out beyond the horizon. It is 1882 on the Patagonian coast, during the “Conquest of the Desert”, a bloody campaign to drive the indigenous peoples out of the jungle, to make the region safe for European settlers. Mortensen plays Dinesen, a Danish engineer who will plan the future European-style cities that will replace the wiped-out cultures. He is there with his daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Agger Malling), who soon absconds into the jungle with a young soldier. As Dinesen follows her deeper into the country, rumors persist that an ex-soldier, Zuluaga, has gone mad and gone “native”, slaughtering the Europeans he comes across. Fugitive signs of Ingeborg emerge and dissipate, but Dinesen trudges on into something like madness. He is like Ethan Edwards in his metastasizing hatred of the indigenous population, and the obsessive chase for his lost girl that is less an act of courage than of bloodlust. The deformity of the European colonial project seems to alter the landscape as well as his body, from watery shores crenellated with rock formations, to the dried out gray of the mountains. By the end Mortensen is a ragged wandering ghost, led by an undernourished dog to some kind of afterlife. The ending is a time-and-space shifting mystery that lays beyond my grasp, images of a fecund forest overgrowing the past, drawing me back in.