Bright Lights Film Journal

Existential Lethargy: Hong Sang-soo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013)

“Jung Eun-chae is a graceful, beautiful Haewon, but her daydreams seem facile, and the backpack she wears for most of the movie — which seems to be empty — tempers this statuesque gracefulness, rendering Haewon an awkward sightseer or a precocious child on a first-time school trip.”

Hong Sang-soo gained widespread international recognition through his deft use of French arthouse superstar Isabelle Huppert in last year’s In Another Country. Those already tuned in to Hong’s unassuming but cutting sensibility wondered if this recognition and interest would die down once Huppert was no longer involved. Perhaps in deference to these mutterings, and parodying his own international acclaim, Hong begins Nobody’s Daughter Haewon with a jarring but amusing cameo from Jane Birkin, who asks for directions from the protagonist Haewon. Moments later this meeting is revealed to be a daydream, and Birkin never reappears. This seems like a deliberate put-on; a wry in-joke. But tiredness, exhaustion with life’s routines, and the daydreams that accompany such existential lethargy are what this film deals in.

Haewon is a daydreamer and dilettante. Her relationship with mother seems cordial, but she’s about to emigrate to Canada and there’s already a palpable sense of distance between the two.

The sudden pang of loneliness Haewon feels at this maternal abandonment pushes her back into the arms of Seong-joon, a film director who is also her college professor, a married man who she’d already once broken up with. Their relationship seems dead in the water from the start; she addresses him formally as professor, long after they’ve begun sleeping together. The motel where their affair first began is called “Fame,” which suggests her real motivation for carrying on this affair.

Jung Eun-chae is a graceful, beautiful Haewon, but her daydreams seem facile, and the backpack she wears for most of the movie — which seems to be empty — tempers this statuesque gracefulness, rendering Haewon an awkward sightseer or a precocious child on a first-time school trip. Lee Sun-kyun, one of Hong’s regular actors, plays Seong-joon, portraying him as a rather pathetic character. He’s selfish yet perhaps not malicious or manipulative, just unable to take responsibility for his own actions. The film’s most bittersweet laugh comes from Seong-joon bursting into tears while listening to his favourite piece of music, a portentous, campy and mechanised arrangement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony that has all the empty bombast of a Simon Cowell talent show.

Soju, Korea’s ubiquitous alcoholic beverage, flows abundantly in this film. However, none of the blissfully disorientating effects that this drink produces if quaffed in large quantities are found in the style Hong employs. He’s been characterised as a fanatical minimalist, excessively fastidious in his desire to document, repeatedly, the neuroses of the intelligentsia, and the ever-decreasing arsenal of techniques he uses to do so. Even his reliance on zooms seems to have been diminishing of late. But for a film constructed of such minimal means, it is fecund with telling moments: awkward glances, revealing body language, half-baked excuses that are accepted rather than cause further awkwardness. Hong is a filmmaker who likes to savour the details of performance, the small repetition or concordance. There are no big gestures, big themes or bombastic techniques here.

To explain Hong’s stylistic clarity, critics have reached for the influence of nouvelle vague directors like Eric Rohmer. Perhaps this goes some way to contextualise his films. Perhaps there are other influences: for a film set in spring, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon has all of the autumnal charm of one of Otar Iosseliani’s world-weary fables; and of course, the national beverage of each director’s country seems to become a character in his films. There’s also the distinctly Korean sensibility of reserve, detachment and insinuating humour. For example, later on in the film, director Haewon meets another film director, this time with a desire to marry someone “just like her.” The director’s brief telephone exchange, apparently with Martin Scorsese, seems like a satirical reflection on 2013, the year when famous contemporary Korean directors like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook found success in Hollywood.

Whatever Hong’s influences are, he seems to find a golden ratio between reposeful observation and mockery. Static shots, and sometimes the aforementioned zooms, ungainly and clunky, as if the camera operator has suddenly been roused from a drowsy (perhaps soju-induced) reverie by some interesting detail. These are the ascetic but decisive techniques that Hong employs to ensure this balance of the languid and the lacerating.

“Sorry, but I don’t want to get old like you,” Haewon jokes with her friend near to the end of the film, but her jovial tone masks what is for Haewon, a very real concern. However the second film director she meets and seems to fall for, almost instantly, is noticeably older than her; he looks old enough to be her father. Does Haewon want romance, or a replacement parental figure, as her fawning over Jane Birkin also seems to suggest? What does Haewon want?

Another technique Hong employs is narrative repetition; evidenced in the three similar stories from In Another Country. In the present film, there’s repetition of location: the two visits to Namhan; a fortress high on a hill seems to dramatise these characters need to get a sense of perspective on their lives; Seong-joon criticises Haewon for cuckolding him, but he himself is married with a child. Haewon dreams about visiting Jane Birkin in Paris, about being like Charlotte Gainsbourg, or about marrying a director with ties to Hollywood. These repetitions suggest circularity, perhaps a vicious circle, or a feedback loop that leads to subtle modulations, rather than a goal-oriented line.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon has the levity and charm of a feuilleton, though its focus on the lifestyles of the rich, attractive and disaffected may alienate viewers searching for something more urgent. One of Haewon’s friends remarks that “her personality doesn’t suit Korea, and perhaps this is true of Hong himself. Western viewers searching for the eastern “exotic” will not find it here. What they will find instead is a scrupulous account of unscrupulous but all-too human characters.