As a film critic, it’s important to acknowledge one’s own biases. If you get them out of the way, people know where you stand. My (perhaps insane) bias is that there can not be such a thing as a bad Hong Sangsoo movie. Watching a new Hong film is like hanging out with an old friend. It’s always the same person you already enjoy spending time with; each new meeting deepening that strong bond you already have.
Old friends always have the capacity to surprise us. With in water (2023), Hong doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but he does innovate with his characteristic style, delivering the best film I’ve seen from him since On the Beach At Night Alone (2017).
The premise, unsurprisingly, is incredibly simple. Seoung-mo (Shin Seokho) and his friends, Sang-gun (Ha Seongguk) and Nam-hee (Kim Seungyun), are shooting a short film together on Jeju Island. They do the usual Hong things: talk about making a film, smoke cigarettes, have awkward, stilted conversations and reflect on the relationship between art and life. But slowly and slyly, evincing a fresh-ish flair for genuine dramaturgy, he squares the circle between real life and the movies, providing a rich metafictional meditation on the next stage of his filmmaking career.
To many chortles in the crowd, in water (2023) credits Hong as director, writer, cinematographer, editor, composer and producer. If anyone is truly an auteur — someone who is completely responsible for the final result of his art — then it is Hong. I was at a screening of Tale of Cinema (2005) recently where critic Dennis Lim compared Hong’s style to painting. It makes sense. A painter sits alone with his easel. With the exception of a sound editor, Hong is a painter with his camera, almost solely responsible for the way his images look.
In a new gambit, he films most of In Water out of focus; a reflection both of his impending blindness and of a willingness to innovate. If Paul Cezanne was considered the single most important influence on work as a whole — especially in the way that one can represent the same grouping of apples in a different way each time — then in water sees him move to the post-impressionists. Far more appealing than the hard, overblown contrasts seen in the harsh black-and-white of The Novelist’s Film (2022), In Water looks genuinely gorgeous. Returning over and over again to the sea, the waves and the sky seem to melt into each other, creating a slow cinema style aesthetic that adds another fascinating abstraction to the already deeply rich Hong cinematic universe.
If saying Hong does this differently or that differently, when it’s just a change in drinks (Pepsi makes an appearance here) or camera techniques, sounds like insider baseball, then fine. I’m tired of making concessions about his work, or trying to justify it to people who don’t already love the singular artistry of the world’s most reliable and prolific auteur. By far a reliable starting point for perhaps one of my favourite living filmmakers, in water is a gorgeous marriage of ideas and artistry, a warm embrace from a director obsessed with making art and the mechanics of creation.