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The Woman Who Ran review – enlightening conversations with friends

Hong Sang-soo's latest is another lo-fi and contemplative drama about a woman who begins to question whether she's happy in life

Few modern filmmakers are as committed to the idea of movies in which very little happens as the South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo. In the tradition of Éric Rohmer, Hong's works are contemplative character pieces in which his protagonists wander aimlessly and restlessly, talk too much, drink too much, and try to find happiness in uneasy relationships and confused friendships. They're an acquired taste – but if you like one Hong film, chances are you'll like them all.

Hong's films unashamedly reprise similar themes and familiar beats – enough that he's often accused of making the same film over and over again. But aficionados know there are subtle shifts and slight variations that help to differentiate these works, even as the lines begin to blur. Hong's latest, The Woman Who Ran, is a typically quiet – and deceivingly slight – drama starring his regular muse (and now real-life romantic partner) Kim Min-hee as a woman approaching middle-age who begins to question her place in society across the film's short 77-minute runtime.

What concept there is here hinges on three separate encounters, as Gam-hee spends the few days she has away from her husband – he's on a rare work trip – visiting friends. It's implied that she hasn't seen these women (played by Song Seon-mi, Kim Sae-byuk and Seo Young-hwa) for a while as they sit and chat over three distinct scenes with the awkwardness of friendships that have faded, but mostly politely and supportively. All the time we hear Gam-hee recite the same stories about her life: that she likes to eat, that she and her husband are never apart, that she's content with her lot.

Most interesting is what's not being said. We glimpse tiny variations in the way that Gam-hee recounts the circumstances of her life. The diversions are not overtly dramatic, and it's never obvious when she's lying to herself – or whether she's doing it consciously. It's simply that we sense a lessening of conviction with every telling. Meanwhile, the film's lo-fi aesthetic – Hong's films always look thrown together with such a casual abandon, like they were shot in a couple of days with borrowed equipment – reaffirms that we're watching something small, intimate, and ostensibly uncinematic.

If there's a common thread, it's that these women are hampered by the men in their lives – some of whom appear in brief cameos, though always off-screen or with their backs to us. One scene involves a passive-aggressive argument with a male neighbour who comes to complain about a cat (culminating in a truly purrfect slow zoom that hints at Hong's playful side). Later, a drunken ex turns up to plead with one of the women and refuses to leave. Then there's an encounter with an arrogant past lover – a now famous director who “talks too much” – that suggests Hong is not against sending himself up.

As it often the case with Hong's work, the slightness can at first give the impression of something undercooked or incomplete. Later, though, perhaps on a contemplative walk of your own, you might find the non-events of The Woman Who Ran floating back into your mind with an added depth – small details paving the way for musings about the things we tell ourselves in order to get by. Few modern directors are as gifted at inspiring such levels of interpretation and introspection with so slight a hand.

The Woman Who Ran is now showing in select cinemas and available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema.

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