Long after Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement has been forgotten, with its tongue-in-cheek commitment to radically low-budget realist cinema, one director is still succeeding in releasing features that are cheaper than student films, composed of people simply talking to each other: in apartments, in restaurants over a lot of alcohol and in the streets with non-actors heedlessly walking past in the background. That director is the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who opens this online Berlin film festival with another intriguing and sympathetic vignette: enigmatically entitled Introduction, running at just 66 minutes, despite containing enough backstory detail for a two-hour drama. I’m not sure it is entirely successful, but it demonstrates Hong’s delicate touch in creating films that, like a certain type of short story or poem, suggest more depth and detail than is apparent on the surface.
So why is it called Introduction? Some characters are introduced to each other, in different scenes – from different generations, with the polite unease and formality that this entails – and in other scenes, characters are introduced to new ideas and emotions. There is a strange scene in which the lead character appears to introduce himself to his girlfriend for the first time, on a chilly beach, despite their intimacy having been already established in previous scenes, leaving us to wonder, if only for a moment, if it is a flashback or a dream he is having, or if both are a dream someone else is having. The film flits with a dreamlike lightness from country to country, from South Korea to Germany, and back again.
Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho) is a pleasant-looking man whom we see at first visiting his father (Kim Young-ho) at his treatment centre in Seoul. His father is an acupuncturist who is, at this very moment, politely tending to a famous actor (Ki Joo-bong), who we later learn has befriended and had an affair with Young-ho’s mother (Cho Yun-hee), and is perhaps the cause of his parents’ marriage breakdown. Young-ho’s relationship with his father is strained and the older man is going through a spiritual crisis. Meanwhile, Young-ho’s shy, almost childlike girlfriend, Ju-won (Park Mi-so), goes to Berlin to study fashion, staying in the apartment belonging to a stylish and beautiful artist (Kim Min-hee, Hong’s partner and frequent collaborator); she is a friend of Ju-won’s mother (Seo Young-hwa), who is astonished and deeply disapproving of the way her relationship is developing with the boyfriend she thought was safely left behind in South Korea. Later, we will see Young-ho have an uneasy encounter with the actor, in the company of his own mother, at which he discusses the vocational crisis with his chosen career of acting – an ambition that has apparently been inspired by an earlier meeting with this man.
Introduction, like so many of Hong’s films, occupies a delicate middle ground between whimsy and poetry, between inconsequentiality and epiphany, between lightweight and light. My feeling is that Introduction is closer to the former in each case, and I wanted to hear more about and more from Young-ho’s troubled father. But there is an unmistakable and mature film-making language on display: a simplicity and charm.