Berlin 2023

In Water review – Hong Sang-soo reaches a frustrating yet fascinating apex

The Korean director, known for his personal, lo-fi efforts, delivers arguably his most minimalist work to date with mixed results

Korean director Hong Sang-soo's mission of minimalism reaches a frustrating yet fascinating apex with his latest lo-fi effort, In Water. The filmmaker, often compared to Éric Rohmer (a comparison that seems to be becoming less accurate with every new film), has come to the Berlin Film Festival with a 61-minute feature that laughs in the face of the usually upheld requirements of “cinema.”

Shot over six days with a tiny team, it follows young filmmaker Seoung-mo (Seok-ho Shin) and his two makeshift crew members/old friends Sang-guk (Seong-guk Ha) and Nam-Hee (Seung-yun Kim), who arrive on a remote, windswept island and – in true Hong fashion – make polite conversation, eat, drink soju, and sometimes plan to actually work on what is to be an improvised short film. In essence, they are making this very movie.

A purposeful probing into its director's own artistic approach, In Water leans into alienating creative choices that force us to reconsider why we shoot films the way we do, and question the methods by which we process them while watching. In shooting most of the film out of focus, Hong aligns us to his own failing eyesight, while the lack of incident or clear plot forces us to scramble for our own wild theories about what is actually happening, however improbable. Soon we wonder whether making a film is the real reason for this trip at all, or is it merely a cry for help? Maybe they're the same thing.

With In Water, Hong has purposely challenged himself to reach what feels like a narrative and stylistic breaking point. This is not a film for newcomers, but one aimed at established fans who are following the on-going journey: those armed with prior knowledge of the director's canon and his increasing appetite for formal destruction, where a minor change in aesthetic from one film to the next can feel like a massive personal revelation.

But even going in with the director's filmography firmly in mind doesn't guarantee a satisfying result on the part of the viewer. In Water is so slight that it runs the risk of barely registering. Yet slowly, as it does begin to reveal some of its intentions in the final moments, one can't deny the ways that its quiet musings linger, even as we sense the director may have reached the limits of what an audience will be willing to accept. Then again, didn't we think that last time, too?

In Water was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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