Surveying Toronto’s City to City program for Cinema Scope—the focus this year is on Seoul—Michael Sicinski notes that “the ever-prolific Hong Sang-soo, a niche figure at home and abroad, has just made a film that is about 85% in English. Building, however inadvertently, on the relative success of In Another Country (2012), his bilingual collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, Hill of Freedom again finds Hong exploring his favored themes and engaging in the structured dislocation that defines his aesthetic…. Not without reason are Hong’s films frequently compared with Rohmer, but with Hill of Freedom he displays a subtle kinship with Resnais. It’s one of his best films to date, and demonstrates that Hong’s jaundiced vision of Korean culture—soju rituals and awkward passive-aggression, intellectual self-absorption and a condescending attitude toward women—can transcend the specificities of language.”
For Variety‘s Guy Lodge, Hong’s 16th feature is “a cream puff even by Hong’s trifling standards…. The Hill of Freedom is not, as it turns out, a towering historical landmark, but a cozy coffee shop in Seoul’s picturesque Bukchon village—the kind of laidback, chichi establishment that has housed many a mellow, meandering conversation in Hong’s past films. Its Japanese signage, meanwhile, makes it especially welcoming to Mori (the reliably engaging Ryô Kase), a diffident Japanese teacher who has returned to Seoul two years after a stretch of employment there, where he fell head over heels for Korean language-school colleague Kwon (Seo Young-hwa). Sent into a tailspin after Kwon rejected his marriage proposal, he is determined to track her down and win her back.”
Kwon’s received a batch of undated letters from Mori. “But then,” writes Screen‘s Dan Fainaru, “out of sheer excitement, she drops the package on the staircase and the pages fly all over the place, she collects them at random, without paying attention to the sequence, starts reading again and Hong goes on telling the story in the now reshuffled, arbitrary order she had put the pages together…. More concerned about the playful structure of his film than about the plot itself, Hong has no more to offer than a flimsy story peopled by likeable but sketchy characters, about ideal love versus everyday romance.”
“This being a Hong Sang-soo film, there’s no real conflict or drama between any of the characters,” writes Adam Woodward in Little White Lies. “Instead, [Hong] seems predisposed with distracting us from plotting the exact points at which the characters’ stories intersect by keeping our attention firmly fixed on the quirky narrative framework…. Yet in stripping Hill of Freedom of style and subtext, [Hong] is able to naturally observe ordinary human interactions in a way that feels refreshingly accessible and direct.”
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Clarence Tsui finds it “disappointing to see [Hong’s] ability to conjure nuanced female characters (as shown to devastating effect in his last film, Our Sunhi) vanishing from view here; Moon Soo-ri’s cafe-owner character Young-sun is more a ditz (and a plot device highlighting Mori’s tribulations) than anything else. Strangely, the less self-obsessed and sound-minded Hong’s characters are, the less vibrant and subversive his films are.”
Update, 9/4: “Though Hong has excelled in recent years with seemingly lightweight fare such as The Day He Arrives (2011) and Our Sunhi, his latest seems a little too content to coast by, lacking the compelling characters of those works,” writes Pierce Conran at Twitch.
Update, 9/7: For the Playlist‘s Jessica Kiang, Hill of Freedom “feels a little like a sampler for a larger project, not that anything is left undeveloped, and like so many of his films is made with a kind of creakiness, in acting style, aesthetics and dialogue, that some may find irritatingly distracting. But for our part, we enjoyed the film’s naiveté, which seems unforced and genuine, and its occasionally witty insights into language and cultural barriers, and the stuff that gets lost in translation when we try to surmount these obstacles.”
Updates, 9/8: This is Hong’s “funniest film,” declares Jake Cole at the House Next Door (and at the AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky agrees). Cole: “It may also be his warmest: Hong’s Rohmerian protagonists are often deluded, arrogant, sensitive men oblivious to how unbearable they are, but if Mori can perhaps be too forward in saying exactly what he feels, he’s nonetheless an endearingly sweet person who charms nearly everyone he meets despite his oddity. The mismatched narrative suggests two possible endings for the film, and where Hong’s characters usually lose out in playing the field, for once both conclusions seem equally affirming.”
Update, 9/15: “A film about visitors and match-sized flares of irritation and infatuation, it could pass for an evocative snapshot of the festival experience in addition to being a typically refreshing, bittersweet comedy from the prolific Korean director,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. In short, “66 quietly glowing minutes from an auteur whose perspective remains at once lulling and stirring, mordant and humane.”
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