As years pass by and films rack up, it’s only natural to associate directors with certain things. And none more so than Hong Sangsoo, for whom a new release usually guarantees a hit of the old. That the South Korean’s latest strips away some––if not all––of those associations is thus some kind of radical act. Premiering in Berlinale Encounters, In Water follows a director, Seoung-mo (Shin Seok-ho), his cameraman, Sang-guk (Ha Seong-guk), and actress, Nam-hee (Kim Seung-yun), as they scout locations in a seaside town. There is no Kim Min-hee (though the actress is credited as producer and still photographer, and we hear her voice), there is hardly any soju, and for the first time since Woman is the Future of Man, there isn’t a single camera zoom.
Hong’s work has never shied from self-reflection––his cinema is populated by artists and filmmakers––but with In Water he digs a little deeper. As Seoung-mo and crew look for places to shoot––noting how the stone walls look (pretty but not too pretty) and finding a single blooming rapeseed flower––you sense a director picking through the tea leaves of his methodology, both examining and exalting the contrivances. In Water is also another experiment in minimalism: barring a couple interior sequences, it was shot almost entirely out-of-focus––subtraction to the point of abstraction. The results might leave you with a mild headache, yet they’re nothing if not effective: melancholy, dreamlike, even beautiful in their own shimmering way.
This too, of course, is a radical act, and that Hong so clearly draws attention to it might offer some clue to his elusive film. In the opening credits Hong is credited as producer, writer, directer, photographer, editor, and composer. That list alone was enough to draw a knowing laugh at the premiere––the director’s most ardent fans are always keen to show such recognition, not least when the great man is in the room. What a newcomer would make of it all is hard to say, but In Water comes with its own instructions––a kind of filmmaking show-and-tell. Consider the first location that Seoung-mo settles on: an alleyway that Hong frames in his film so that its pathway curves beautifully into an unseen infinity point. While Seoung-mo and his team appreciate its merits, might Hong be asking the viewer to sharpen their own attention to such small details? There has been a growing sense of apathy amongst middlebrow critics about his work in recent years, not least as productions themselves have become more compact. Could In Water be some kind of riposte?
Either way, it certainly finds Hong in a ruminative mood, seemingly mulling over his own professional and artistic anxieties. In a later scene, over sandwiches, Seoung-mo laments the difficulties of self-financing. When questioned by Sang-guk, he appears sheepish about his relationship with Nam-hee (note that name’s similarity to a certain someone). They eventually make their way to a beach (a place of recurring significance in Hong’s cinema) where Seoung-mo spots a masked woman collecting trash. The director becomes so enamored with this thankless act of public service that he decides to recreate the moment the next day with Nam hee playing her––a classic piece of Hong repetition that seems to point toward melancholy about his work. This prevailing mood, a kind of creative futility, is accentuated and nicely countered by a recurring guitar motif––one of the most aching pieces of music from any of his films. It plays in truncated snatches throughout, and only in full over the film’s wistful final shot.
Narratively it’s nothing if not succinct, and whatever In Water lacks for plot it more than makes up for in mood and ideas, as well as a kind of raw artistic honesty––regarding his work, yes, but also his sense of mortality. All of which only makes you wonder: might something be fading for the 62-year-old? Derek Jarman was losing his eyesight when he made Blue. Could Hong eventually distill his cinema to different shades of grey? In any case, you’d never doubt the sincerity. “I’m not the type to make films for the money. I lack the skill for that, anyway,” Seoung-mo explains in an early scene. “I’m just hoping for honor.” Amen to that.
In Water premiered at Berlinale 2023 and will be released by Cinema Guild.