‘In Front of Your Face’: Film Review | Cannes 2021

A former actress and a film director meet in a café in the latest from South Korea’s Hong Sangsoo.

Small is beautiful and luminous in In Front of Your Face (Dangsin-Eolgul-Apeseo), the 11th film of South Korean writer-director Hong Sangsoo to be invited to Cannes. An easy film to overlook in its subtlety, it recounts a day in the life of a middle-aged actress who, on the pregnant cusp between life and death, agrees to meet a rather foolish film director in a cafe. Typical of Hong’s work, the laid-back anti-storytelling lets daily life flow slowly by without incident, until a revelatory twist in the last act gives the film its meaning. It will certainly appeal to his festival fan base but neophytes beware: It takes patience to get to hidden truths, and even so they are about as clear as a Zen koan.

To say that Hong is a prolific filmmaker is an understatement: His creative output half-way through 2021 so far includes not only the present film bowing in the new Cannes Premieres section, but the 66-minute drama Introduction, which won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at February’s Berlinale. Working with a professional cast, Hong handles directing, scriptwriting, cinematography and even music composing in a familiar one-man-show. It’s a tribute to his method and skills that the film, albeit restricted to a few simple sets around Seoul, has the pleasing look of professional quality.

In Front of Your Face

The Bottom Line

A graceful short story with a memorable punchline.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Premieres)
Cast: Lee Hyeyoung, Cho Yunhee, Kwon Haehyo
Director, screenwriter: Hong Sangsoo

1 hour 25 minutes

Sangok (played by Lee Hyeyoung, a leading South Korean actress of the ’80s) is visiting her sister in Korea and sleeping on the sofa. After years of living in the U.S., where she gave up acting for simple employment, she has come home on a rare visit. An underlying tension surfaces with her sister (Cho Yunhee) during a morning walk and attentive viewers will notice that she seems to be holding something back as they talk. We hear her thoughts: “This moment is grace; paradise.” She is trying hard to live mindfully in the present, without the distraction of the past or the future.

This philosophy is put to the test when, in her nephew’s noodle shop, she spills a drop of soup and stains her elegant pale pink blouse. Her sister thinks she should change clothes before her lunch meeting with a filmmaker, but Sangok lets it go, suggesting that appearances don’t matter to her.

The meandering dialogue between the sisters has the authenticity of improv, bringing their contrasting characters out strongly. Sangok has a Zen-like mindfulness and reflects on everything she does; sister Jeonok seems surprised at herself every time she has a thought — like the sudden awareness that they barely know each other.

The truth comes out in the main scene, set in an empty bar, between Sangok and the director (played by Hong regular Kwon Haehyo). It’s their first meeting and he awkwardly expresses his deep admiration for her performance in an old movie he loves. They are all alone — he knows the owner and has been given a key to lock up — and both are pretty drunk on soju. It is then that Sangok reveals why she can’t make plans to shoot a film with him. As they leave the bar, they are caught in a sudden downpour, which neither seems to care about.

But the film’s real epiphany comes early the next morning. Sangok is at her sister’s place, waiting for the director to pick her up. He has proposed they take a short trip together so he can film her. (He has also admitted to a more personal interest.) When Sangok wakes up, she finds a message on her phone that makes her burst out laughing uproariously. We see her point, and are reinforced in our understanding of her as a wonderfully centered woman who, as she says, has seen reality — it’s there, right in front of her face.

Full credits

Production company: Jeonwonsa Film
Cast: Lee Hyeyoung, Cho Yunhee, Kwon Hae-hyo
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer, music: Hong Sangsoo
World sales: Finecut

1 hour 25 minutes