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In Front of Your Face review – Hong Sang-soo’s lyrical ode to humanism

In his latest lo-fi effort, the prolific Korean filmmaker reflects on life and mortality in a rather altruistic way

Anyone who’s seen at least a couple of the 28 titles directed by Hong Sang-soo would agree that he most certainly is not a filmmaker who mourns any sort of departure. Quite the opposite, most (if not all) of the protagonists in the extended Hong-verse actualise and assert themselves only by leaving a certain home behind. For example, in his previous two features (The Woman Who Ran and Introduction) which both won him prizes at the Berlinale in 2020 and 2021 respectively, the narrative drive was voluntary dislocation – be it temporary, or more permanent. What we see as transitory states, then, Hong recasts as decisive moments, imbuing the everyday activities associated with leaving a place/person behind and making a new home out of another.

In Front of Your Face follows now-retired actress Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young) as she returns to Seoul after a prolonged period of working and living in the States, her sense of wonder and double-bound nostalgia tinting both her small talk and her pauses. As she spends a day in the company of her sister Jeong-ok (Yunhee Cho, whom we know from 2017’s The Day After), the film’s tone fluctuates between uplifting rediscoveries and profound sadness. The latter, no doubt, prompted by the passage of time and its inevitable marks – middle age, retirement, the alienation from one’s former working rhythm all resurface, one after the other, as the conversation flows throughout the film’s slim runtime, as per usual in Hong’s films.

The pacing is delightful and yet bittersweet, notably punctured by short fragments of thought, conveyed in a rather confessional voiceover: Sang-ok’s own ruminations sound concrete enough to conclude an episode and abstract enough to channel a heartfelt appreciation for life amongst the living. Such sentimentalities are often associated with homecomings, but here they attain a certain level of authenticity which can be interpreted in conjunction with Lee Hye-young’s performance, laden with unimposing, humble greatness, the kind of presence that is both minuscule and magic. It’s also worth mentioning the prolific filmmaker, who keeps a regular rotation of cast members, here teams up with a Korean star, well-known and esteemed for working across film, TV, and theatre.

“I never worried about such things in America,” says Sang-ok, gesturing to the soup stain on her top, which she frets over for hours. The significance of the stain (which we never really see in close-up or notice, not really) is emblematic of the clash between past and present, the “here” and “there” and the self-image in between. It is in the singular desire to communicate this paradoxical but all-too-human state which prompts the main character to share a secret she’s kept for a while. She does so – as Hong’s films have it – during a drunken dinner with a filmmaker, who seeks to bring her out of retirement, a scene which unfolds over the whole second half of the film.

In Front of Your Face is a small miracle of a film and, in a way, the same kind of prolonged confession, only made possible by distance and displacement. As Sang-ok recounts the events which turned her away from a suicide attempt early in her life, notes of poeticism frame a deeply humanistic image. In people’s faces, she says, is where salvation lies. In front of the face, the face of the other makes you see clearly.

In Front of Your Face is released in UK cinemas on 23 September.

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