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Woman is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, 2004)
Woman is the Future of Man, the poetically, if sardonically, titled new film from low-key Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo recalls the work of Eric Rohmer in its gentle deployment of damning moral comedy. A relatively uneventful plot, in which two old friends reunite and take a day trip that finds them literally revisiting a mutual old flame, sets a stage which finds the director revisiting familiar themes about passive women and insensitive, inexperienced young men. Once again, Hong begins by aestheticizing a kind of Korean stereotypical behavior in which thoroughly ingrained cultural boundaries keep men and women from connecting romantically. Even though the characters in Woman constantly pair up with one another, the couplings are invariably short-lived or unsatisfying. Mun-ho, who seems at the outset of the film to be a happily married college professor, strays with alarming frequency. His best friend Hyeon-gon, though single, is no better off, having been stunted from his breakup with Seon-hwa, the woman the two visit together. There’s a thesis here, hidden in plain view, but never articulated, suggesting that the men want something more when they choose to settle for a blowjob (Hong is frustratingly myopic when looking at the women’s motivation). The buildup of consistent sexual and emotional disappointment that mounts over a lifetime of meaningless encounters and relationships is what the film is creeping up upon. It’s to Hong’s credit that he doesn’t allow the situation to boil over into violence, but by the time the film has ended he’s passed judgment on the men as strongly as if he had.
Time and again, Woman demonstrates just how callow its protagonists are. During one bout of post-coital indifference set in the past, Hyeon-gon admits, “I didn’t know women shaved their legs”, though the modern-day version of him appears no more savvy. He thinks himself clever when he catches his wife sneaking a cigarette, but never ponders the deceit involved in the act. There’s no demonstrable understanding of the opposite sex on his part, but it has to be said that there seems to be no shortage of women that will indulge their self-centered behavior. It must be counted as a mark against the film that so many of the sex acts in this film feel like a variation of rape. Perhaps to Hong, the selfish intent of the men pushes it in that direction, but selfish intent doesn’t equal rape. Even though he demonstrates that both partners, on some level are engaged with each other in an attempt to fill some psychic void, the inescapable passivity of the women is not often given the excuses that the drunken loutishness of the men provides.
Often, the seeming psychological shortcomings of Woman are forgivable, due to the structure, and the obvious degree to which the film is being processed through Hong’s very specific filters. If it’s not well-rounded or fair to all of its characters, it has to be noted that Hong maintains the feel of a short story, as opposed to a novel, so that its narrow focus comes off as a deliberate choice instead of a failing. The structure of the script is loaded with mirroring sequences and phrases (the highlight occurs when the two men try to pick up the same waitress with similar tactics, unbeknownst to either), which aren’t exactly believable, but fit into the slightly stylized, snow filled landscape we see. Somewhat frustrating after the breakthrough of Turning Gate, Hong’s latest shows the director content to work within his established style without expanding his ambitions. Though Woman is the Future of Man will likely be seen one day as a minor work in the director’s oeuvre, it is by no means an embarrassment. Here’s to hoping, though, that Hong’s next film sees him breaking his holding pattern.