Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s Woman Is the Future Of Man shimmers like a clear lake on a sunny day, and is almost as motionless and quiet. (The title comes from the poet Louis Aragon.) Dealing with a sort of triangle between two male friends—a married and settled but still smoldering art professor named Mun-ho (Yoo Ji-tae) and Hun-joon (Kim Tae-woo), an aspiring filmmaker who's been studying his craft in the U.S.—and a woman named Sun-hwa (Sung Hyun-ah), the movie is composed of long, still takes in which the characters feel each other out and try to decide whether to reach out for companionship or sexual satisfaction, or just have another drink. (Mun-ho, in particular, manages to stay pretty well oiled throughout.)
Hong is part of a movement among a current generation of high-profile Asian filmmakers who keep their distance and take their time, observing their characters’ self-destructive mating rituals and other exotic behavior from a deceptively non-judgmental-seeming distance. At their best, the work of directors such as Hong, his fellow South Korean Ki-duk Kim (The Isle, 3-Iron), and Taiwan-based Ming-liang Tsai (What Time Is It There?, Goodbye, Dragon Inn) can be amazing, given the emotional complexity and narrative density they achieve with a few characters and a sense of space that would give most Western directors claustrophobia attacks. In Woman, Hong adds to the effect with a nonlinear time scheme that puts the viewer in the position of reassessing what was going on in one or another scene, based on a scene that comes later but that may provide the back story to what’s already been shown.
It’s a demanding technique, and it’s a tribute to Hong’s abilities that he mostly leaves you feeling like it’s been worth putting up with it. He pulls it off even when he threatens to leave you with the impression that there’s a livelier movie going on somewhere else. (At one point early on, a wrecked-looking Sun-hwa informs one of the guys that she’s just been abducted and raped. The guy’s solution is to take her to bed and “cleanse” her by screwing her. Like most of Hong’s explicit physical encounters, it’s both funny and hair-raising.) The movie’s principal mood is sadness at the spectacle of people throwing their lives away for lack of any clear idea of what else to do with them. Mun-ho’s students, who cluster around him and take him out for drinks, seem to regard him with a sort of affectionate pity that borders on condescension. He’s barely thirty, if that, and already given up as a lost cause.
In Korean, w/subtitles