NYFF 2020: ‘The Woman Who Ran’ Review: Sparse and Slack

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Calling a Hong Sang-soo film slow would be akin to calling a beaver’s dam woody. The prolific Korean auteur’s latest is another of his characteristically chatty pieces, featuring almost nothing but relaxed, realist footage of conversation. There is a general plot, this time: The Woman Who Ran follows a woman (the director’s real-life lover and muse Kim Min-hee) who runs only metaphorically through three visits to old, somewhat estranged female acquaintances. While the substance of these conversations is usually interesting, Hong’s typical style does little to justify its meandering, resulting in a film that sags and sighs where a more compelling approach would reach for something more.

Shot in a no-frills style that could have been achieved with almost no professional equipment, The Woman Who Ran intelligently packages this threadbare construction into a compact, 77-minute runtime — the story would certainly begin to strain the viewer’s patience if continued much longer. This is not to say it lacks value; on the contrary, the brevity underscores its best qualities. Kim portrays young protagonist Gam-hee: a woman unsure of how to move through life without her husband by her side (they have been married for five years and not spent a day of that time apart before this period) and her tentative reconnection with the aforementioned three women communicates all it needs to in her visibly restrained interactions. 

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Each meeting with a friend presents Gam-hee with another clue towards a revelation for which she did not initially know she was searching. The details of her married life are deliberately kept vague, to intriguing effect; we are not sure whether her distance from her partner is a chance for her to re-evaluate their relationship, or simply a natural break from a partnership usually based on proximity.

In The Woman Who Ran, there is a sense that one ought to expect men to act obnoxiously more often than not — towards both women and general society. Hong’s sparse script does well to root this insinuation in clear, believable dynamics; there is little question that its three examples of asinine male behavior could happen anywhere at any time. The second confrontation is most typical: a young man who believed himself the scorned lover tries to confront one of Gam-hee’s friends about their affair, stubbornly planting himself in her hallway. The third is the most winking and autobiographical, as Gam-hee’s former lover, an older man involved in media, callously chuckles at their past experiences. The first example is the most inventive — while Gam-hee stays with an old friend and her friendly roommate, a neighbor begins an uncomfortably tense conversation about feeding the local cats. What may initially seem like small stakes expediently becomes a microcosm for NIMBY attitudes, patronizing male arrogance, and the power of the quiet, kind refusal to submit. Helped along by an exquisite feline who appears midway through in the background, these moments are some of the most compelling and memorable of the piece.

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Neat use of repetition highlights Gam-hee’s compartmentalization of love; her husband regularly insists that people in love should stick together, a sentiment which she repeats with slight paraphrasing within each conversation. Though this and other opaque devices suggest a clarity to the film’s core values, the effect ultimately proves forgettable. Gam-hee’s journey grants her some room to grow into her own, a valuable lesson presented with such little energy that it ends up generating a slight experience as the film goes on. Only Kim’s presence contains a depth and gravity that proves effective — for her clear and earnest performance, she should be commended. Otherwise, the spare approach to a spare story proves to be lacking and hard to recommend.

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