At the top of the list of the best modern romantic comedies are the films of Hong Sangsoo and his latest, Hill of Freedom continues his winning streak with no end in sight (he’s managed an unbroken string of masterpieces with nine films since 2008’s Night and Day). Hill of Freedom returns, after a three film sojourn in the point of view of female protagonists, to the male perspective, in the person of Mori, a Japanese man in Korea to look for a woman, Kwon, whom he has decided he is in love with because she is the best person he has ever known (he respects her so much! A sentiment interchangeable with love in the recent films). The bulk of the story is relayed in a series of letters (memento mori?) Mori wrote to Kwon after he was unable to find her, his voiceover narration guiding us through the requisite drinking bouts, awkward social encounters, and questionable life choices.
It's one of Hong’s funniest films – my notes are mostly just pages and pages of dialogue as I furiously transcribed at least half the script. Formally there is at least one development in Hong’s repertoire: for the first time that I can recall, Hong uses a dissolve (note: Hong had used a series of dissolves during a travel sequence in his second film, The Power of Kangwon Province). It’s a quick one, eliding a moment within a scene (early on, when Kwon accidentally drops the letters on a stairwell and scurries to pick them up, with disastrous consequences for the temporal continuity of the rest of the film). And of the three big drinking scenes, only one is in the standard Hong shot, parallel to the table with the actors arranged perpendicularly, facing each other. The other two table scenes are angled off to the side, privileging one of the drinkers over the others (this is a return for Hong rather than a new approach, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors uses the same setup, among other earlier films). Unusually, none of the characters are specifically stated to be in the film or film teaching business, although Mori is told that he “has the fine mustache of an artist”. As sweet and warm as anything Hong has yet made, but with a dark cloud of instability under its fragile reality. The dreams and fantasies of Night and Day and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and the scripts of In Another Country, along with the temporal loops of The Day He Arrives and Oki’s Movie (to say nothing of the manifold points of view in Hahaha and Our Sunhi), give the recent films a slippery, kaleidoscopic quality. I experienced Hill of Freedom as ending happily, but looking back on it, I’m not so sure that’s what really happened.
Added January 24, 2018:
Watching it a second time, the narrative jumble is less complicated. And watching it at home, alone, it’s less funny than it was when seeing it in a packed festival auditorium. Hong generally plays better in a theatre, but this and In Another Country especially so, I think.
Like Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, this features a Hongian variation on the old Hong Kong double-ending, whereby a film gets both the happy and sad endings, giving the audience the full emotional experience (think All About Ah-Long or An Autumn’s Tale). In Hong’s version, the happy ending is a dream, probably in Haewon, possibly in Hill of Freedom. It’s possible that the final scene, which begins with Mori waking up, means that everything with Kwon in it, her receiving the letters, mixing them up, finding Mori and living happily ever after, was all a dream. Or, it’s simply the contents of the missing letter, relating a minor episode in the broader story. The answer, obviously, is both.
Also, with Jeong Eunchae appearing as the girl in the room next to Mori, this may be a sequel to Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. In that film she lost her mother, who moved away. In this one, she’s run away, but her father comes to collect her. In Haewon, she contemplated moving to America and marrying the older professor played by Kim Euisung. In Hill of Freedom, she takes an instant dislike to Kim’s clumsy getting-to-know-you flirting and harangues him mercilessly.