Judge Joel Pearce is willing to accept Hyeon-a Seong as his future.
"You're all animals."—Sunhwa
Featuring a strange concoction of arthouse sensibilities and unique style, Woman is the Future of Man is not for everyone. It's a patiently paced film; one that's not afraid to be as static as a stage production. Thanks to some impressive performances, though, it is a compelling and savage study of failed relationships. I spend so much time with the mainstream films that come out of South Korea, that I tend to forget that some Korean filmmakers are also at the cutting edge of the film festival world.
Facts of the Case
After a few years apart, two old friends get together for lunch. Munho (Ji-tae Yu, Oldboy) is a Western Art professor, is married, and has a young child. Hunjoon (Tae-woo Kim, JSA) is a would-be film director recently returned from film school in America. Seeing each other once again reminds both men of Sunhwa (Hyeon-a Seong, Cello), a girl both were involved with in the past. The two men decide to visit Sunhwa together.
I suppose Woman is the Future of Man is most accurately described as a comedy, but it's not the sort of comedy we often see. Director Hong Sangsoo used his film as an opportunity to explore young sexual relationships and Korean identity. The results are savage and harsh. Unfortunately, sometimes this film falls into the same problems that it desperately wants to overturn.
Over the course of the flashbacks, we see Sunhwa horribly taken advantage of by both Hunjoon and Munho. Hunjoon was involved with her first, but abandoned her suddenly when he went to school in America. In the most uncomfortable scene in the film, he pushes her to have sex with him shortly after she has been raped by an acquaintance. He convinces her that this intimacy will cleanse her. He almost seems to believe it as well. After Hunjoon abandons Sunhwa, Munho visits her to take advantage of her as well. At one point in the film, she refers to both of them as animals, which is a reasonable description. The sex scenes themselves are filmed in long, unwavering shots, perfectly capturing the awkward and unfulfilled nature of passionless first encounters. We are kept at a safe distance, and can only really observe these sequences in clinical terms.
That said, Sangsoo doesn't do enough to flesh Sunhwa out as a real character. Does she love either of the men? How have these relationships affected her? She tries to say no to Munho at one point, but she quickly relents, while also inadvertently teaching him how to push hesitant women into sex. At the end of it all, she is still an object, as unthinking and shallow as the two men are heartless and selfish. By setting up Woman is the Future of Man this way, Sangsoo is also misogynistic. We don't learn much more about the lead woman than we do about the Chinese waitress that Munho and Hunjoon try to pick up at the restaurant. Perhaps this is the point Sangsoo is trying to make—that we still expect women in films and in life to be shallow and attractive and nothing more. I think it would take a more thorough Korean cultural knowledge to truly understand what Sangsoo was trying to get across here. One of the liner essays tries to explain some of the intricacies of the dialogue, but I found it just confused matters more.
The most impressive aspect of Woman is the Future of Man are the performances. Sangsoo's style of filming doesn't give the actors much leeway for their roles, as they run through whole sequences in a single take. There's never a sour moment, though, from any of the performers. With such a static film, wooden performances would have made it as unbearable as one of those video recordings of BBC Shakespearian stage productions. I found myself compelled by these two men, though, as they experience pain and remorse for their sins, before quickly falling into the same patterns once again. It's a painful process to watch, because we immediately sense that these men will probably never change.
The disc is generally well produced, certainly representing the best I've seen from New Yorker Films. The anamorphically enhanced video is colorful and generally sharp. Movement sometimes betrays some mastering issues on a larger television, but it's not often distracting in such a dialogue-driven film. The sound is also acceptable. It is presented in both a 5.1 track and a stereo track. The 5.1 track is superior, though mixed strangely quiet. Turned up, though, it presented clear vocals from the front channel, and music nicely mixed across the front soundstage. The stereo track is much louder, but tends to be a bit boomy. The subtitles are readable, though I occasionally got the feeling that I wasn't getting a very helpful translation. There are nuances here that I could tell I was missing. The subtitles were physically hard to read as well. They are white, often on a white background. I had to pause several times to catch the lines.
New Yorker has really pulled out all the stops in the extras department. There are some quality liner notes, which give some cultural context for the film, and also supply a number of useful links for deeper exploration into the Korean new wave. Martin Scorsese offers up an introduction to the film, explaining where Woman is the Future of Man fits into the Korean festival invasion. Interviews with the leads and a production featurette dig into Sangsoo's style of directing and the unique challenges of working on this kind of production. The Korean and French trailers are included as well. None of the special features are fluffy, making them genuinely useful for people who want to dig a bit deeper into what the film has to offer.
Although the transfer and translation could be a bit stronger, Woman is the Future of Man is a challenging, fascinating exploration of a society's attitudes towards sex, men, and women. Many viewers will be frustrated by the cultural references and nuances, but adventurous viewers will find quite a few rewards under the surface of this fascinating, thoughtful film. It would not be ideal for a first date, though.
Not guilty, though I'm still a bit suspicious of Hong Sangsoo's intentions.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Introduction from Martin Scorsese
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