Review: Hong Sang-soo has made many great films. “Walk Up” is among his best

A middle-aged filmmaker named Byung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) settles downstairs in the simplest and most startling scene of “Walk Up,” a hilarious, brilliant, and deeply moving feat from South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo afternoon nap. It’s the only moment in the film when he’s completely alone, though he enjoys his solitude, clutching a pillow like it’s his best friend, snippets of conversation – between himself and his girlfriend Sun-hee (Song Sun-mi ) – can’t help but play out in his head. They talk about their recent reunion with an old friend and their plans to move to the beautiful island of Jeju in a few years. Is Byung-soo forming this dialogue or is he beamed in from the future? And why, despite his and Sun-hee’s passionate declarations of love, does it feel like the beginning of the end?

The ephemerality of relationships and the slippery parameters of (fictional) reality are hardly new thematic concerns for Hong, as his many admirers will know. But while some familiarity with his vast, ever-expanding oeuvre certainly enriches the experience (this is his 28th feature film in 26 years), I suspect “Walk Up” might resonate particularly well with the uninitiated.

Exquisitely shot in black-and-white and wrapped up in Hong’s preferred seriocomic language of long, soggy meals and funny-sad babble, the film is a triptych of stories set in a three-story walk-in building (“Three Floors”). pun hopefully very intentional). If that sounds boring or confusing, it isn’t: “Walk Up” flows as captivatingly as a dream and is no less enjoyable to puzzle over afterwards.

But whose dream is it? This image of snoozing Byung-soo provides one answer, although the presence of his daughter Jeong-su (Park Mi-so), slipping in and out of the action at key intervals, suggests another.

At the beginning of the film, father and daughter come to this walk-up, owned by Ms. Kim (Lee Hye-young), an old friend of Byung-soo. The three talk over many, many glasses of wine. Byung-soo plays the guitar and ponders Ms. Kim’s offer to rent him one of her upcoming apartments; Jeong-su, a former art student, expresses interest in becoming an interior designer like Ms. Kim.

Lingering tensions and resentments gradually reveal themselves (but never announce themselves); At some point, Byung-soo, who seems to be a better filmmaker than his father, rushes off to take care of a professional emergency, leaving the two women alone for hours.

Lee Hye-young and Song Sun-mi in the movie Walk Up.

(cinema guild)

“Let’s just pretend he’s never been here,” jokes Ms. Kim drunkenly. It’s a meanly lewd line, and it haunts every subsequent frame of the film; You can never be sure if the three vignettes are told sequentially or happen completely independently.

In the second story, which appears to take place sometime after the first, Byung-soo comes over and has a drink with Ms. Kim and her second floor tenant, Sun-hee, a restaurateur. A few cuts later – and a cut in a Hong film can skip days, weeks, months, and maybe universes – Byung-soo has moved in with Sun-hee, a decision that seems to coincide with dramatic setbacks in his career and physical condition Health.

As “Walk Up” progresses — by the time the third story begins, Byung-soo has moved into the top-floor apartment and is dating a real estate agent named Ji-young (Cho Yun-hee) — the more you realize just how much is happening outside of the screen and also in the spaces between the irritated, meandering, alcohol-smeared lines of the characters’ dialogue.

In this intellectually whimsical but quietly meaningful film, Hong – not for the first time – playfully inverts widely accepted notions of cinematic narrative. He reminds us that life is so much more (and often, of course, so much less) than dramatic moments of change and revelation, that the smallest things — a well-prepared salad, a leaky blanket, a jar of wild ginseng, a traffic ticket — can become potent stores of meaning. Much of life, too, is speculation, reflection, and daydreaming—the contemplation of multiple possibilities, and even the embodiment of multiple selves.

To that end, Byung-soo, a critically acclaimed, festival-winning Korean filmmaker, could easily be a fictional stand-in for Hong himself; Then again, he just might not be, considering how many critically acclaimed, festival-winning Korean filmmakers have appeared in Hong’s filmography.

This specific mystery is less important than the intensely personal dimension Hong brings to this tale of romantic, creative, and professional frustration, in which the walk-up itself – a structure whose different levels Byung-soo occupies at different stages – becomes one a kind of simulacrum of professional artistic life.

And in this life, disappointment sets in: it matters when we learn that Sun-hee once wanted to be a painter, or when funding for Byung-soo’s latest film fails, or when Jeong-su bluntly proclaims that “art nothing to do with money”. Perhaps most impressive are the many abstract paintings we see stored on the top floor – a wealth of creative output, a forgotten chapter of a past life, quietly hidden from view.

As Walk Up tells the story of Byung-soo’s creative collapse – and perhaps his impending resurgence – his most memorable and tragically unfulfilled character turns out to be Ms. Kim. Lee, a veteran talent and the star of Hong’s recent In Front of Your Face (2021) and The Novelist’s Film (2022), gives a sharp, moving performance that hints at this woman’s prickly, subtly dominant temperament begin and bring it into deeper, richer focus with each scene.

Ms. Kim, a character of increasing villainy but also increasing pathos, spends the film in a kind of thwarted stasis, pacing up and down the stairs forever, wearing the same black top and the same clicking heels, checking into apartments unannounced and nudges her nose into her tenants’ business. Their desires – for love, for companionship, for control, for Byung-soo – couldn’t be more transparent, but here they remain tragically contained, perhaps awaiting release in another story told at a different point in time become.

‘go up’

In Korean with English dialogue
Not rated
Duration: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Play: April 1st, April 5th and April 7th at the Los Feliz Theatre, Los Angeles

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