One returns to certain filmmakers either for the comfort of knowing exactly what to expect from them or for their capacity to endlessly subvert the audience’s expectations with each new release. Hong Sang-soo’s 29th and 30th films at the 61st New York Film Festival, do both. While In Our Day (2023) and In Water (2023) deliver on presenting familiar actors and Hong’s signature techniques such as zoom and two shots, these new films showcase Hong’s first attempt at integrating Korean language’s many idiosyncrasies into his formal designs.
Hong’s devotion to auto-fiction continues in In Water. Deliberately shot out of focus, its impressionistic images are a painful reminder of the filmmaker’s deteriorating eyesight, first addressed in Introduction (2021) which features a character devastated by her impending blindness. In Water follows a young man named Seoung-mo who is on a mission to make a film in Jeju Island with the help of his old friends Sang-guk and Nam-hee. Reminiscent of Hong’s own filmmaking method, Seoung-mo has no clue what he sets about to make. He only has a location and an actor in mind. Much of the film observes these characters wandering around different corners of Jeju, hoping to receive artistic inspiration from the island’s beautiful seaside vistas. None of this is new for Hong, but he uses the familiar autobiographical premises as a launchpad to incorporate spoken Korean as the film’s central formal device. The dialogue in In Water, as a formal category, provides clues to the obfuscated facial expressions of its three characters and landscapes, and therefore its narrative content.