I went to the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) recently and saw Hill of Freedom (자유의 언덕) by Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-Soo. A while back I wanted to know more about Hong’s work and asked a friend for a description. “Well…” and then she laughed. I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean and she couldn’t really expand. In the end, I took her to mean “not for everyone.”
After seeing Hill of Freedom and assuming it’s like Hong’s other movies, I’m pretty sure I read her response right. The film is super low-budget and feels like a student project from 1995 with its limited camerawork and cheesy zoom ins. There’s a strange absence of sound throughout the film almost like wherever they are shooting is in a bubble. There isn’t much that really happens and you may wonder where the climax is exactly. By the time it’s over, you might think it was just a bunch of talking. Well, it was. And that’s fine, if you’re looking for that sort of thing. I was.
Hong is known for his portrayal of human relationships. Hill of Freedom is about a Japanese man who returns to Seoul in search of the woman he still longs for. It stars Ryo Kase from Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love as the character Mori, who on his quest to reunite with his love-interest, spends a number of days in a quiet area of Seoul and meets a bunch of interesting people along the way.
The girlfriend walked out on it in the first 20 minutes for what she considered horrible on-screen chemistry and what sounded like a bad ESL audiobook. I stuck through it, liked it, and reconciled the awkward dialogue delivery with that just being how it is with ESL speakers sometimes. If you watch this, I recommend you use the same rationale.
What is special about this?
Hong includes a number of things that I don’t normally see in Korean films. Here are a few examples: One is a trans-national story, especially a romance between a Japanese man and a Korean woman. Despite the fact this kind of relationship happens all the time, this is still a sensitive subject for many and not one represented on screen very often. Next, is the “visibly foreign” character fluent in Korean shown together with Mori and his ethnic Korean friend. It is a scene where our notion of looking a part and not fitting that part is challenged. Sure we have a person who looks Korean and is fluent. But then we have someone who doesn’t look Korean and is fluent. We also have a third character who many would confuse to be Korean but is not and is not fluent in the Korean language whatsoever.
A third thing I liked about this movie is its dialogue and scenarios which are often amusing and owing to Mori as a foreigner. Hong brings to light some culturally-specific characteristics that I think would be lost on people unless they spent a fair bit of time living in Korea. From his conversations with the guest house owner to the exchange between his friend Sangwon and a young woman at the guesthouse, Mori finds himself in situations that aren’t too different from some of the more humorous things I encountered living in Seoul. In addition, interesting was him commenting on the subject of foreign teachers who work there. A number of things I found myself relating to that I didn’t expect from a Korean movie has given me a deeper appreciation for this movie, for sure.
I can’t say I would recommend Hill of Freedom to everyone, but I will say I liked it for being different and quirky. And it is pretty short running about an hour, so not a huge waste of time if you end up hating it.
Tags: asian diaspora stories, hong sang-soo, inter-asian relations, Inter-Asian Relations in Film, kase ryo, korean film, seoul, vancouver, viff