“The same trajectory through similar way stations has served Hong Sang-soo equally well from 2004’s Woman is the Future of Man onwards,” begins Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker: “ill-fated romantic and sexual encounters between men and women fueled and derailed by epic soju consumption, meetings which repeat with a disconcertingly slight degree of difference across the same locations. From such modest materials, the tone has swerved from potentially inconsequential farce (Like You Know It All, In Another Country) to the recent dourness and cyclical/purgatorial futility of The Day He Arrives, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi. For detractors, this reliance upon nearly interchangeable plots is an indicator of laziness; for fans (he’s one of my favorite working directors), the point isn’t a comic’s reliance upon the same safe gags (which remain hilarious) but their intricate rearrangement. The degree of tonal difference and emphasis is refracted and clarified by each subsequent work.”
“The main innovations he introduces in Hill of Freedom are twofold,” suggests Kenji Fujishima at Slant. “One is structural, as much of the action is essentially an extended flashback driven by a letter a heartbroken woman reads in the titular cafe—but at one point, she drops the pages while going down a stairwell and, when she picks them up, the pages are out of order. Hong takes that as his cue to scramble the chronology around, with big chunks of flashback denoted by a recurring shot of the woman’s hands turning to the next page. The other change, however, is more thematically tantalizing, at least in theory. As in the Isabelle Huppert-led In Another Country, Hong again casts a non-Korean as his lead: Japanese star Ryo Kase, whose character, Mori, is a recently unemployed, lovelorn young man in Korea looking for a female co-worker, Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), with whom he had a fling a couple years ago while they both worked at an English-language school.”
The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody argues that “in a crucial way, Hill of Freedom is Hong’s most French film yet. It is his version of a film by Alain Resnais—his gloss on Resnais’s first two features, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad.” Even at 66 minutes, Hill of Freedom is “so complex in its construction that I’ve watched it three times forwards and one time backwards and I feel as if I’m just beginning to get the hang of it.” So “the first question Hill of Freedom poses is: How many time frames does it intertwine? There’s the time when Mori and Kwon originally met; the time when Mori went to Seoul to find her again; the so-called present tense, of Kwon receiving and reading the letters, which brings the past onto the screen as flashbacks. But the connections and overlaps, the slips and gaps, between these times, as revealed in the course of the action, are central to the story, and that’s where the dazzling complexity and mercurial surprises come in.”
“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,” notes R. Emmet Sweeney at Movie Morlocks. Watch the clip below, wherein Mori sums up the thesis of that book. Sweeney adds that “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…. 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.”
“Hong gives us a soulful, subtly acerbic, tongue-in-cheek critique of narrative coherence,” writes John Anderson at Thompson on Hollywood. For Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com, what “cuts through the playful commentary is one poignant revelation: Heartbreak is everyone’s second language. It makes us a foreigner everywhere we go.” Earlier: Reviews from Venice and Toronto.
Update, 10/4: At Reverse Shot, Michael Koresky notes that there’s a zoom that slips out of focus. “It’s what everyone, from your corner cinephile to your average moviegoer, would call a mistake. One could narratively explain the lens shift. (asr.adventistas.org) ” But such justifications don’t necessarily address “the question of Hong Sang-soo: what are our technical and narrative standards in regards to contemporary art cinema? And just how is it that this charmingly low-key Korean filmmaker has been so consistently, beguilingly, and quietly getting us to question those standards for over a decade?” His films “are so emotionally transparent that they run the risk of being mistaken for simple-minded. And the same goes for their craftsmanship, which reflects a wonderfully unfussy, almost naïve intuitiveness. Hong zooms because it just seems to feel right in the moment, mistakes be damned.”
Update, 10/7: “Hong Sang-soo has been playing with time from the start of his career,” writes David Bordwell. “He has tried replays from different viewpoints (The Power of Kangwon Province, 1998), replays that differ in details (The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, 2000), odd déjà-vu experiences (Turning Gate, 2002), and all manner of theme-and-variations plotting (as noted on this blog here and here and here). So it’s a bit surprising to find him exhuming the old reliable setup of letters recounting events in the past. Yet here as ever he has a couple of tricks up his sleeve.” Which, of course, he then discusses.
Update, 10/10: “I’ve seen the film twice and suspect that there’s still a significant amount of resonant detail I haven’t seized upon yet,” writes Dan Sallitt. “It’s Hong’s nature to throw undigested material pell-mell into the crannies of his movies: he’s not interested in integrating it into a schema (in fact, the idea would surely repel him), but the impact of his films lies in the wash of dissonance created by this material, a dissonance that belies the light comedy of the films’ surface structure.”