'The Woman Who Ran' Review: Hong Sang-Soo's Gently Evocative Exploration Of The Feminine Mystique [NYFF 2020]

A woman spends a couple days catching up with friends over coffee and home-cooked pasta. One is a happy spinster living in the countryside, the second is an aspiring artist who has found a second lease on life, and the last is a career woman dealing with marriage issues with her more famous husband. Are these just relaxed hangouts among friends or are they actually glimpses into three possible futures for Gamhee (The Handmaiden's Kim Min-hee), a pensive wanderer whose genial attitude appears to keep at bay any deeper probes into her psyche? In Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo's The Woman Who Ran, it could be either — the filmmaker's penchant for the absurd poking its way through gentle, lackadaisical drama that smoothly glides through its slight story and slim 77-minute runtime.

The Woman Who Ran unfolds as a cozy slice-of-life tapestry spun together with three loosely threaded sections centered around Kim's Gamhee, a woman traveling around without her husband for the first time in years. In three separate visits to her three of her friends, Gamhee earns a glimpse of the rich textures of womanhood — or perhaps act as a serene twist on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, by showing Gamhee insights into potential pathways that her life could have taken. In classic Hong fashion, it's never made clear whether this is just a fanciful notion or if The Woman Who Ran does carry shades of the surreal.

Gamhee's first friend Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa) is a middle-aged single woman living with a roommate in a countryside condo, satisfied with providing a shelter to lost cats and lost women from the neighborhood who come to her for a haven from their broken homes, and can't fathom Gamhee's adoration for her husband, with whom she had spent every day together for 5 years. After spending a night pondering Young-soon's life — which is filled with tending her vegetable garden and verbally sparring with a male neighbor protesting against her feeding stray cats — Gamhee heads into the city to have a meal with Su-young (Song Seon-mi), who has given up a steady job and romance to live her dream as an artist. They chat about mundane things like rent and relationships when Su-young is interrupted by a knock at her door from an infatuated man who had been stalking her. Just like the neighbor who argued with Young-soon, we mostly see this man from the back, Hong's camera keeping steady on the women and their crossed arms and closed-off body language. Men rarely get the privilege of a full close-up in The Woman Who Ran, which is only really interested in its women and their inner lives. It almost treats the men like comedic nuisances, to be waved off from the small micro-utopias that women have built around themselves.

Hong employs his signature minimalist filming style to let the viewer hang out in this gentle world of women, chatting with them about their ambitions, their dreams, their regrets, the people they help, the people they hurt. To match his minimalist filmmaking, The Woman Who Ran similarly emulates the minimalist "aesthetic" that has become the trend in Korea. The pastoral pleasures of Su-young's rural home is matched by the mid-century minimalism of Su-young's apartment furniture, all shot with a hazy dreaminess, as if the women are enveloped in the warmth of their own worlds.

The haze begins to lift with Gamhee's third encounter, which is the only accidental one. At an art exhibit where a black-and-white experimental film is being shown, Gamhee runs into Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk) the curator of the exhibit and an estranged friend with whom she had a falling out years ago. The two of them awkwardly make small talk before Woo-jin apologizes profusely for her crime — stealing Gamhee's lover — while Gamhee brushes it off. "I hardly even remember it," Gamhee unconvincingly assures a teary Woo-jjin. The two of them part, a little less estranged, only for Gamhee to run right into the man in question (frequent Hong collaborator Kwon Hae-hyo), who politely greets her before accusingly asking, "How could you come here?" Gamhee has nothing to say, and soon excuses herself, fleeing from her ex, only to loop around and pace in circles around the complex.

Hong loves that kind of circular storytelling, often slyly repeating narrative beats to create a sense of déjà vu — a self-contained world doomed to repeat the everyday mundanities and mistakes. But there's something unpretentious about the way Hong repeats himself in The Woman Who Ran, perhaps because it is a film finally divorced from his artistic ego. The director of naturalistic diary-like dramas like On the Beach Alone at Night and Right Now, Wrong Then, Hong has a history of telegraphing his personal life in his films — thinly veiled autobiographical insights into the mind of the artist, with his longtime muse (and real-life partner) Kim Min-hee as the vehicle through which Hong works through his issues. Hong is nothing if not an honest filmmaker. But in The Woman Who Ran, Hong lets go of all vanity and gives Kim a well-deserved spotlight. With Kim's rueful performance, and the film's roaming, Eric Rohmer-like sensibilities, The Woman Who Ran allows itself to take solace in serenity and not worry so much about the would haves and could haves.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10