South Korean director Hong Sangsoo’s latest film is a microcosm of gender politics. Depicted through a short series of seemingly simplistic scenes and wrapped up in a tight 77 minutes, women and men and the roles they play for one another are put on sharp display, as the transient Gamhee (Kim Minhee) travels from longtime friend to longtime friend. Though straightforward and stark, each interaction carries nuanced implications on woman’s expectations in society, further framed by a series of brief, entirely negative interactions with men. But beyond that, it’s a delightful — if softly inaccessible — portrait of female friendships and how they evolve over time.
Gamhee’s first visit is to her friend, Youngsoon, recently divorced and now living in a home in the countryside, to which Gamhee brings high-quality meats grilled by Youngsoon’s roommate. The friends eat, chat, and catch up, eventually interrupted by Youngsoon’s new neighbour — a young man with a wife who’s deathly afraid of cats. The three women and the neighbour get into a tiff over Youngsoon and her roommate’s refusal to stop feeding the stray cats nearby, an act the neighbour cannot possibly fathom because he feels that “people are more important.” That night, as Gamhee stays over, a 20-something girl who lives in the neighborhood stops by for a smoke with Youngsoon, who explains to Gamhee that the girl’s mother ran away.
Next, Gamhee visits Sujung, a woman who’s managed to accrue $1 million in savings from teaching Pilates for many years, and who’s found herself sexually entangled with a much younger man. At one point during Gamhee’s visit, the young man stops by to see Sujung and the two get into an explosive argument outside her front door, before he leaves. The final friend is a woman named Woojin, who Gamhee meets by chance when Gamhee visits the café-cinema where Woojin works. Though it initially seems implied that the two might have once been romantically involved with one another and suffered a falling-out, it is eventually revealed that Woojin’s current husband once dated Gamhee, causing the subsequent rift. After the two catch up and Gamhee sees a film, she encounters Woojin’s husband, her former lover, and they endure a quietly fraught conversation, before Gamhee departs to re-watch the film she just saw.
The three vignettes are anchored by Gamhee’s repeated explanation to her friends about why she’s visiting them in the first place: her husband is on a business trip, and while they’ve been married for five years, they’ve never once been apart. Gamhee relays some variation of her husband’s rationale for this, that “people in love should stick to each other,” and the friends all muse differently in their reaction to this justification. One can’t fathom being around someone all day, another seems supportive but skeptical that Gamhee is genuinely happy; another is even envious. When asked by one if she loves him, she hesitates, explaining that she doesn’t really know, but contorting her explanation in a way that ultimately makes it sound like love — or maybe excuses it. But through further revelations, it’s clear that Gamhee is in the business of trying to please her husband, regardless of whether that benefits her or not.
The film is cheeky in its depiction of men, sparse interactions with them solely shot with the women in full view while the men we only see the backs of, putting emphasis on what they cause to the women they interact with as opposed to regarding them as individuals. Additionally, their arrivals act strictly as nuisances, unwanted interruptions — Yungsoon’s pedantic neighbour with the cat-phobic wife; Suyung’s boundary-breaking fling; Gamhee’s fame-hound ex. Though, these interactions seem less about depicting all men as “bad” or only causing problems and more just being mischievous bookends to a more weighted through line on the way women’s lives are burdened by the gender roles placed upon them. One of the earlier discussions, the story of “the woman who ran” hangs gently in the subtext, the idea of her a more powerful presence than that of the men in the film. For no apparent reason, this mother just decided to up and leave her life behind. She left no note, and no one’s heard from her since. She simply disappeared.
It begs the questions of what would happen if any of these women decided to up and leave their lives behind — disavow the men who have caused them hurt and distress, or unburden themselves from the confines of the loyal wife. Both Youngsoon and Suyung, however, are the closest to achieving this; Youngsoon having been divorced from her husband, she settled with a healthy sum and now lives peacefully in the countryside with her female roommate, while Suyung quite literally pulled up her bootstraps and saved herself a small fortune, which she is looking forward to using to buy whatever she wants. But there’s still this ever-present idea that they’re not truly free — Youngsoon does feel a bit confined in her new life, the mountains her divorce took her to more of a distance from everything than she’d like, while Suyung finds herself needlessly tormented by the casual dating game.
The 77 minute run time does lurch by slowly due to the nature of the film, its emphasis put entirely on dialogue and intimate conversations free of even the most minimal amount of expected cinematic flair. Though, to some, it might seem like nothing more than over an hour of plain conversation, a world of culture critique abounds between the lines of spoken sentences, and The Woman Who Ran is ultimately a blunt and realistic look at the life of modern women.
The Woman Who Ran screened at the virtual edition of the New York Film Festival 2020 between October 2nd and October 7th
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs