The Past — and the Great Hou Hsiao-hsien — Flourish at MOMI

The filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s entrancing Flowers of Shanghai (1998) unfolds in a revolving world. Its action
occurs inside a brothel in the British quarter of late-19th-century Shanghai, where a wealthy young man falls for a “flower girl” despite having spent over two years as the sole customer of another prostitute, who pleads with him to keep supporting her. The camera moves in continuous circles around them and their contemporaries as it absorbs the details of low-lit red-and-gold rooms and invites us to watch men gamble, women plot buying their freedom, and characters’ fates enlace each other’s. Tales of doomed love play out before us in a way that makes the past feel like part of an eternal present.

A new 35mm print of Flowers of Shanghai screens Friday to open the Museum
of the Moving Image’s month-long series spanning the career of the 67-year-old
Taiwanese filmmaker (whose name is
pronounced “Hoe Shauw-shen”). The comprehensive touring retrospective, organized by Richard I. Suchenski, includes celluloid presentations of Hou’s 17 completed fiction features, along with shorts by him, a documentary about him, and four films from other directors that involve him as actor, producer, and screenwriter. Only four of Hou’s directorial efforts have ever received commercial
distribution in the United States; the
series affords New York audiences a rare chance to absorb the work of one of the greatest living filmmakers.

Flowers of Shanghai might initially seem like atypical Hou (who is currently completing his long-considered martial arts epic, The Assassin). The film was made in mainland China by an artist who had spent almost his entire life in Taiwan, with actors speaking scripted period dialogue rather than the contemporary speech that Hou has often asked his performers to improvise. Yet Flowers also continues Hou’s career-long interest in displaying history for public use. He films people in extended shots held from a distance to emphasize our proximity to them. Regardless of the time and place they inhabit, Hou’s characters register as recognizably human, and equally weak, fragile, and flawed.

This retrospective is named after the puppeteer troupe run by the real-life late Taiwanese storyteller Lu Tien-lu in Hou’s film The Puppetmaster (1993, screening Saturday), who articulates a kind of metaphor for Hou’s cinema: “Puppets in performance are like people, so puppet plays are also like life.” Hou seeks to understand human behavior by both making and
observing representations of it; his lead characters are often actors, singers, and writers who transmute their troubles into art. Hou’s uniquely vivid film portrait of the then-85-year-old Lu takes us from the puppetmaster’s 1908 birth under the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (which began in 1895) through to the island’s handover to Chinese authorities at the end of World War II. The film mixes dramatic re-enactments of episodes from Lu’s past (including puppet plays) with present-day moments of the seated old man calmly
recounting the lessons he learned from his experiences, and wishing sympathy for all who took part in them.

Several Hou films assume multiple viewpoints to see the past with greater fairness and clarity. The Puppetmaster forms part of a trilogy of films that aim
to unearth Taiwan’s much-suppressed recent history. Good Men, Good Women (1995, screening September 20) shows a contemporary film actress playing a
Taiwanese woman whose husband was one of thousands murdered during the Nationalist-inflicted “White Terror” against suspected Communists; the older woman’s reality, offered to us in black-and-white scenes, gains immediacy as the actress brings to her role memories of
her own recently murdered beloved. A City of Sadness (1989, screening October 12) examines the years between Taiwan’s liberation from Japan and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s assumption of power in 1949. It does so from the vantage points of three adult Taiwanese brothers, including a deaf-mute photographer who snaps still-lifes of his splintering family.

Hou — himself one of four brothers — was born on the mainland during this period and moved to Taiwan with his family in his infancy. He jovially recalls in Olivier Assayas’s HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (1997, screening Saturday) how he lived as a petty good-for-nothing until military service brought him purpose — not with guns, but with chances to movie-binge during time off duty. He began his directorial
career with broad comedies in the dominant local style until discovering (in tandem with several other young Taiwanese filmmakers, most notably Edward Yang) that his work could grow richer if he brought his personal experiences and those of his screenwriting partners and actors to it.

Hou’s revelation led him to make carefully observed early wonders — including the perfectly formed slice-of-life short film Son’s Big Doll (1983, screening October 5) and the directly autobiographical masterwork A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985, October 3) — in which young people learn their shortcomings through witnessing those of other people. Throughout,
the camera stays at a dispassionate remove, as though studying them as well. Hou has maintained this approach, even when
following strangers in Tokyo (2003’s Café Lumière, screening September 26) and Paris (2007’s The Flight of the Red Balloon, screening September 28). Whether he’s home or abroad, Hou treats filmmaking as a field of discovery for himself and all his collaborators, including eventual viewers.



Leading Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien received some much-deserved U.S. exposure in 1999, when a retrospective of his work landed in New York. This fall’s Hou-centered series at Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image, however, ups the ante, offering not only screenings of Hou’s 17 features — all on 35mm, no less — but also a program rounded out with related works from other filmmakers, including Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew (Oct. 17) and Wu Nien-jen’s A Borrowed Life (Sept. 28). Additionally, several of the Hou screenings will be preceded by introductions from a league of notable critics: J. Hoberman (The Puppetmaster, Sept. 13), Amy Taubin (Three Times, Sept. 14), Jonathan Rosenbaum (The Sandwich Man, Oct. 5), and series organizer Richard I. Suchenski of Bard College, who presents tonight’s opening screening of Hou’s Flowers of Shanghai.

Mondays-Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: Sept. 12. Continues through Oct. 17, 2014


Here Are At Least 18 Movies You Should See This Fall

Pocket your smartphones and close your laptops, New York. You live in the greatest filmgoing city in the world. (Settle down, Paris!) So there’s no reason not to give yourself over this fall to immersive pleasures on giant screens. If you missed the summer’s curated indies of BAMcinemaFest, you’ll have more chances to fill your eyes — and especially your ears — with theatrical runs for the mystically bluesy Willis Earl Beal-led folktale Memphis (September 5, IFC Center); the restored 1981 graffiti-and-Mingus tone poem Stations of the Elevated (October 17–23, BAM); and the stunning jazz-pianist biopic Low Down (October 24, limited release), co-starring John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Peter Dinklage, and Flea.

See also: The 2014 Fall (Arts) Issue: An Index

When the devils come to play at the costumed end of October, don’t miss the Halloween edition of See It Big! (October 24–26, Museum of the Moving Image), featuring increasingly rare 35mm prints of horror staples like Poltergeist and The Bride of Frankenstein. More repertory thrills are to be had with new restorations of Orson Welles’s noir masterwork Touch of Evil and legendary German expressionist spooker The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (both October 31–November 6, Film Forum). Or head to Anthology for their “Industrial Terror” series (October 24–31)—pairing the work of iconic scaremongers like George Romero and Herk Hervey with in-house training commercials they made for money—or their 12-hour Day of the Dead marathon (November 1, noon till midnight) of as-yet-undisclosed cult shockers. Daniel Radcliffe waves his freak flag in Horns (October 31, limited release) as a distraught young man who sprouts supernatural nibs from his noggin after his girlfriend dies.

On the fertile nonfiction front, there’s Rory Kennedy’s surprisingly fresh re-examination of Saigon’s fall in Last Days in Vietnam (September 5, limited release) and Nadav Schirman’s The Green Prince (September 12, limited release), a real-life psychological thriller concerning the unorthodox collaboration between the son of a Hamas leader and the Israeli government. A prolific art forger’s intent and mental health are to be questioned in the fascinating puzzler Art and Craft (September 19, limited release), and the life, career, and marriage of sexploitation pioneer — or is he, too, an artist? — Joe Sarno are illuminated in A Life in Dirty Movies (September 19–26, Anthology). And vérité godfather Frederick Wiseman makes an inspiring canvas out of London’s National Gallery (November 5–18, Film Forum), which allows curators, conservationists, and other colleagues to expound in hands-off long takes.

Not rock ‘n’ roll enough for you? Then take it up with brooding Aussie rocker Nick Cave as he celebrates 20,000 Days on Earth (September 17–30, Film Forum) in this inventive docudrama. Welshman-cum-Chicagoan Jon Langford and his cult cowpunk collective get their due in Revenge of the Mekons (October 29–November 4, Film Forum), as does Britpop royalty Jarvis Cocker in Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (November 19, limited release). For even worthier excuses to keep your devices dark, dig into the season’s brightest highlights below:

God Help the Girl
September 5

Whimsical, charming, and thankfully less precious than it sounds, Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s aspirational directorial debut is a naturalistic 16mm musical based on the lush, twee pop of the Scottish indie mainstays. Emily Browning stars as a mentally ill kitten who clicks with a nerdy lifeguard and drummer (Olly Alexander), and Hannah Murray’s rich girl, making a pop trio. The premise may be light on drama, but the big-hearted emotions are as infectious as the tunes. Amplify, in limited release,

John Waters
September 5-14

Celebrating 50 years of Baltimore’s funniest, filthiest provocateur (appearing live throughout the series), this complete retrospective includes all 12 of Waters’s directorial features: Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, early 16mm rarities from his personal collection, and more. There’s a free shorts program, a Polyester screening with scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards, and an eight-feature sidebar of darkly comic gems and perversities entitled John Waters Presents: Movies I’m Jealous I Didn’t Make. The Film Society of Lincoln Center, West 65th Street and Broadway,

Hou Hsiao-Hsien
September 12-October 12

All 17 of the Taiwanese New Waver’s elliptical, sophisticated features will be projected on film in this traveling exhibition (entitled “Also Like Life”), from acclaimed faves like Flowers of Shanghai, Café Lumière, and Flight of the Red Balloon to such lesser-known pearls as Hou’s 1980 directorial debut, Cute Girl, and 1983’s Cinemascope musical The Green, Green Grass of Home. A special sidebar presents Olivier Assayas’s doc HHH: Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and other Hou-centric fare. Museum of the Moving Image, 36-01 35th Avenue, Queens,

Tennessee Williams
September 26-October 6

Coinciding with the release of John Lahr’s biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, Film Forum showcases 14 of the illustrious dramatist’s adaptations, including a double feature of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Sydney Pollack’s This Property Is Condemned, co-adapted by Francis Ford Coppola. A Lahr book-signing follows the opening-night screening of A Streetcar Named Desire, and Baby Doll co-star Carroll Baker will participate in a Q&A following the September 29 screening of Elia Kazan’s controversial classic. Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street,

September 26-October 12

Anchored by a bold and bound-to-be-thrilling trio of gala premieres (David Fincher’s Gone Girl, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman), the esteemed New York Film Festival offers vetted new features from beloved auteurs—Mike Leigh, Olivier Assayas, Mia Hansen-Løve, the late Alain Resnais—while keeping an eye on emerging young bucks like Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Josh and Benny Safdie (Heaven Knows What), and Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip). The Film Society of Lincoln Center, West 65th Street and Broadway,

Force Majeure
October 24

An ice-cold knockout at Cannes, Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund’s brilliantly perceptive and frostily funny drama snowballs into an emotional avalanche. At least, that’s what happens when a picture-perfect family of four at a French Alps ski resort are torn apart by a snowy landslide that does no bodily harm but reveals how selflessly, or otherwise, we react in a moment of fear. (Try imagining National Lampoon’s Vacation as directed by Ingmar Bergman.) Magnolia, in limited release,

Goodbye to Language
October 29

The real guardian of the 3D galaxy is Jean-Luc Godard, who proves with this densely aphoristic but startlingly playful experiment that there’s still more to do with the de rigueur multiplex gimmick than tossing projectiles. Commenting on the way we live and communicate today (and cinema, literature, politics, everything!) via an adulterous couple, a soulful dog, and an imaginative use of optics-challenging technology that had Cannes erupting in mid-screening applause, the French master, at 83 years young, ain’t done yet. Kino Lorber, in limited release,

October 31

Expect to hear Jake Gyllenhaal’s name during awards season, and not just for losing 20 pounds to sink into the sociopathic skin of a freelance crime videographer and ruthless bottom feeder who waits by his L.A. police scanner to be first on the scene. Wickedly entertaining and authentically disturbing, writer-turned-director Dan Gilroy’s socioeconomic thriller offers perverse truths about the bloodletting cost of journalism as public tastes skew toward the cheap and sensational. Open Road Films, in limited release,

Story of My Death
November 20-30

Too tragicomically, singularly strange to be called merely an 18th-century costume melodrama or a philosophical allegory, Catalan auteur Albert Serra (Birdsong) presents this, to use his own description, “unfuckable” tussle between Enlightenment and Romanticism in the passing of two fabled deflowerers: giddily debauched, powdered dandy Casanova (Vicenç Altaió) and shadowy bloodsucker Dracula (Eliseu Huertas). Pensive and painterly, this challenging slice of cultural flamboyance finds a deadly seriousness in the dryly self-parodic. Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue,


Hong Sang-soo Gets in Touch with His Inner Frenchman in “Night and Day”

‘We can’t easily tell night from day during the summers here,” observes one character early on in Hong Sang-soo’s Paris-set Night and Day—a nearly throwaway line that circumscribes the sense of physical and spiritual dislocation felt by the film’s protagonist. Like most of the director’s leading men, Kim Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) is a hangdog, self-absorbed, soju-guzzling Hong alter ego—a fortyish Korean artist who flees to the City of Lights after an episode of recreational drug use leads him to believe he is under police investigation. There, he rents a room in a crowded boarding house and resolves to lay low until he can safely return home to his wife, Sung-in (Hwang Su-jeong), or else find a way to bring her to France. But resolutions aside, it isn’t long before Sung-nam finds himself navigating Hong’s trademark gauntlet of awkward seductions, casual betrayals, and ghosts of girlfriends past.

Given his reputation, to quote J. Hoberman, as “the most Frenchified of contemporary Korean directors,” as well as his regular appearances in Cannes, it may have been inevitable that Hong would come to make a film in France. He seems to feel right at home there, too, capturing life in a thriving expat artist community with the same eye for haphazard courtship rituals and ear for pompous intellectual posturing he brought to the likes of Woman Is the Future of Man and Woman on the Beach. That emphasis on dialogue, combined with an unapologetically stationary camera, gives Hong’s work a casual, “artless” façade that belies his carefully plotted, novelistic structure—of which Night and Day may be the most ambitious to date.

On a Paris street, Sung-nam encounters Min-sun (Kim You-jin), a former flame whom he initially fails to recognize, now married herself but still happy to abscond with her ex to a hotel for the afternoon. They, in turn, bump into the coquettish Yoo-jung (Park Eun-hye), a Beaux-Arts painting student whom Min-sun criticizes for being “too realistic and stingy.” Sung-nam replies, “Women don’t need to be realistic,” though by this point, he is already in hot pursuit, deflecting the overtures of Yoo-jung’s roommate while processing mixed signals from his latest object of desire. Structured as a series of diary entries, the film has an episodic flow: in between extramarital dalliances (which are more like lunges), Sung-nam pleads for his wife to masturbate to him over the phone, drunkenly insults a visiting North Korean student at a party, and even turns to the Bible for answers—only to find that there are none. Some of it is hilarious, some sad, all filtered through Hong’s inimitably wry take on the unbearable lightness of being . . . himself.

Night and Day was commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay as part of the same short-lived filmmaking initiative that also brought us Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon and Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours—and while the three films share a loose dialogue about the work of artists, and each features a cameo for the venerable museum, their formal strategies could scarcely be more different. Whereas Hou tilted his poetic camera toward the Parisian skies, following his enchanted crimson orb across the city’s rooftops, Hong repeatedly points his at the ground, filming refuse as it’s hosed down gutters, a baby bird fallen from its nest (the closest the movie comes to overt symbolism), and other signs of impermanence. Finally, he arrives at a masterfully deployed bit of third-act rug-pulling so unexpected that it may be Hong’s way of saying we are all stumbling toward an uncertain horizon.


Flight of the Red Balloon

Dir. by Hou Hsiao-hsien (2007).
The Flight of the Red Balloon is explicitly an outsider’s movie, full of odd perspectives and founded on dislocation. Typically, Hou’s narrative rhythms allow for long periods in which not much happens, followed by a cascade of overlapping information. In its unexpected rhythms and visual surprises, its creative misunderstandings and outré syntheses, its structural innovations and experimental performances (notably that of Juliet Binoche), this is a movie of genius.

Sun., Sept. 20, 2:30, 5:30 & 8:30 p.m., 2009


Ghosted Plays Like an Amateur Debut

Ghosted (alternate title: A Chinese Lesbian Ghost Story) is so clunky and amateurish that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s director Monika Treut’s debut instead of the latest in a 25-year career. Armed with a firm lesbian fanbase on the festival circuit, Treut offers a brief, incoherent excursion into supernatural mystery with exactly zero tension. The story’s fulcrum is Ai-Ling (Ke Huan-Ru), who comes to Hamburg to learn more about why her father left Taipei. She meets artist Sophia (Inga Busch) at a screening of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times (a wishful allusion; no good for Treut can come of that comparison). Sophia apparently has enough street cred to present subpar, only-Facebook-worthy digital photos of Ai-Ling as her latest “project.” Meanwhile, five months pass in the first 15 minutes and then, all of a sudden, Ai-Ling’s dead, Sophia’s in Taipei with said slideshow project, and journalist Mei-Li (Ting-Ting Hu) wants the whole story and/or into Sophia’s pants. What happened is no clearer at the end than at the beginning—or maybe I’m just an exceptionally slow viewer—but it seems unimportant anyway. Flat visuals, flat script, flat performances: Ghosted is only mildly redeemed by the on-the-ground travelogue footage of Taipei and Hamburg, and I’m being generous.


The Red Balloon

If you’re of a certain age, chances are one of your seminal childhood moviegoing experiences was Albert Lamorisse’s lovely 34-minute The Red Balloon (1956), about a Parisian boy’s friendship with a red balloon so iridescent that I incorrectly remembered the rest of the film as black-and-white. Now you can take your kids and/or yourself to a gorgeously restored new print (overseen by Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son, who also played the boy), released in a double bill with Lamorisse pére‘s 1953 White Mane, an exquisite story of a similarly angelic lad and his horse-pal resisting capture on the shallow white plains of the Camargue. For all the seraphic beauty of the boys, neither movie resorts more than briefly to cuteness; both are escape fantasies that pay homage to the inventiveness of children in the face of dour adult oppression. In The Red Balloon, which won the Palme d’Or (and, oddly for an all but silent movie, Best Original Screenplay) at Cannes, the boy’s feet clatter over the cobblestones of a bombed-out postwar Paris, and in both films, the final images indelibly evoke the rapture and terror of being carried away—about as good a metaphor for cinema as I can think of. If you come out wondering how Lamorisse (who later died in a helicopter crash while shooting a documentary about Iran) persuaded a balloon to follow a kid around and sail over rooftops, all will be revealed (or imagined) in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s forthcoming Flight of the Red Balloon.


Celebrating the Moment and the Epoch

Wafting across the decades, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times presents the same romantic couple, played by Shu Qi and Chang Chen, in a trio of psychologically fraught settings and historically charged situations. Hou’s latest opens, mid ’60s, in a small-town Taiwanese billiards parlor, goes back 45 years to a brothel in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, and concludes amid the techno-driven confusion of contemporary Taipei. Politics, however, are submerged by Hou’s exquisite formalism and, to a degree, his autobiography. My first impression of Three Times was that it was high middling Hou, conceptually bold but unevenly executed. The movie’s implicit themes of time travel, eternal recurrence, and the transmigration of souls seemed as muddied by the director’s devotion to Shu as they were dissipated in the confusion of the final present-day section. But Three Times improves on a second viewing as Shu’s limitations become more affectingly human. Three Times does appear to fall apart in its final movement. But as that disintegration is a carefully edited contrivance, Hou’s sense of motion pictures as a temporal medium seems all the more profound. Is there another filmmaker who can so fluidly celebrate the moment as well as the epoch, and do so in the same shot?


Repeat Performance

Wafting across the decades, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times presents the same romantic couple, played by Shu Qi and Chang Chen, in a trio of psychologically fraught settings and historically charged situations. Hou’s latest opens, mid ’60s, in a small-town Taiwanese billiards parlor, goes back 45 years to a brothel in Japanese-occupied Taiwan and concludes amid the techno-driven confusion of contemporary Taipei. Politics, however, are submerged by Hou’s exquisite formalism and, to a degree, his autobiography. In a sense, Three Times recapitulates the Taiwanese master filmmaker’s themes and development. Each segment is titled—”A Time for Love,” “A Time for Freedom,” “A Time for Youth”—and each is focused, literally, on Shu, the thin, pouty actress Hou celebrated in Millennium Mambo.

Three Times‘ first movement makes its temporal sense immediately evident by opening with the entire Platters version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” as the camera eyes the shyly vivacious Shu having, as a Buddhist might say, her “being” as a pool hall hostess. Chang, newly drafted, impulsively asks if he can write to her while he’s in the army. She’s pleased to accept; each then disappears. There’s no plot in “A Time for Love” beyond Chang’s attempt to find Shu again. Straightforward yet opaque, sentimental but never cloying, the sequence is all but wordless. Dialogue is subsumed in the constant clatter of billiard balls as they strike and fly apart—an unforced metaphor for the movie’s unspoken emotional laws.

Hou typically frames his shots in a room with an open door at center screen, thus creating a backdrop of vertical color bands. These careful compositions reappear in “A Time for Freedom,” but in the context of an utterly different world. Shu and Chang meet again in traditional costumes. He’s a writer with revolutionary aspirations, she’s a courtesan yearning to be free. The movie is “silent” and the copious dialogue is given in intertitles, although at several points Shu sings in sync. Hou’s reinvention of silent cinema is based on slow fades and a stately moving camera and Shu inhabits it with extraordinary grace. The compositions are the narrative—in the end, her character has been trapped, by her lover’s misplaced idealism, in a brocade prison.

A shock cut to a motorbike coursing along a Taipei skyway heralds “A Time for Youth.” It’s the postmodern era: For the first time, Shu and Chang are shown having sex. She’s some sort of ambisexual punk chanteuse. He’s one of her affectless devotees. The sequence is amorphous and chaotic. The depth of field is shallow and the geography is bewildering. Shu’s often aimless behavior is punctuated with close-ups of websites and cell phone screens—although Hou also contemplates the beauty of a beaded curtain in the singer’s disheveled apartment.

My first impression of Three Times was that it was high middling Hou—conceptu
ally bold but unevenly executed. The movie’s implicit themes of time travel, eternal recurrence, and the transmigration of souls seemed as muddied by the director’s devotion to Shu as they were dissipated in the confusion of the final present-day section. But Three Times improves on a second viewing. Shu’s limitations become more affectingly human (as does Hou’s fascination). “This was the first time I’ve actually seen a Hou Hsiao-hsien movie that I understand,” the actress enthusiastically told Cinema Scope.

Three Times does appear to fall apart in its final movement. But as that disintegration is a carefully edited contrivance, Hou’s sense of motion pictures as a temporal medium seems all the more profound. Is there another filmmaker who can so fluidly celebrate the moment as well as the epoch, and do so in the same shot?


Man’s Favorite Sport

Slowly, we’re catching up with the Korean New Wave’s answer to the love child Antonioni and Hou Hsiao-hsien never had: If Hong Sang-soo’s elusive masterpiece The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) is still cinema non grata on these shores, his grim structuralist follow-up Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) is properly DVD’d here, and his fifth film, Woman Is the Future of Man (2004), now catches legit screen time. Hong may experiment with story flow and import, but he’s nothing if not focused on Korean twentysomethings and their untethered life path of power-boozing, disconnection, and romantic failure. For Hong’s lost generation, the past never adds up to the present, and modernity is merely a fabric of unsatisfying lies.

More often than not, the men are treacherous louts—”You’re all animals,” Sun-hwa (Sung Hyun-ah), the inevitable vertex of the new film’s triangulated anti-ménage, morosely says at one point. And yet the men’s self-immolating behavior is what’s saddest in the Hong universe, thanks largely to his duplicitous manner with narrative—you can rarely grip the shape of the entire film until past the halfway marker. When you do, the tragedy of soured lives is beyond the point of no return.

In Woman, we first meet two grown school buddies as they reunite for drinks after several years; Mun-ho (Yoo Ji-tae) is a married suburbanite with a huge mortgage, while Hun-joon (Kim Tae-woo) is returning from years at a U.S. film school. In the first of the film’s patient set pieces, Hong sits the men in a noodle shop booth for almost six solid minutes, engaged in a conversation simmering with resentment and hostility. Hong then leaps backward to Sun-hwa, who is gently left behind by Hun-joon after another old boyfriend rapes her off-screen. We leap ahead again to the restaurant booth, and back again (Mun-ho pursues Sun-hwa in his friend’s long absence), until the two drunken semi-friends, somewhat reluctantly, decide to visit their old girlfriend, each harboring their own secrets and each obliviously at a loss as to what Sun-hwa might want from them years after the fact.

We’re accustomed to an omniscient understanding of what movie characters, particularly in dramas about love and loss, are thinking, but Hong distributes information with a saline drip. Often, of course, his two lonely fools don’t quite know what they’re thinking, either—Woman can sometimes come off like an introverted Carnal Knowledge with two Jack Nicholsons. Hong’s film cuts from one flashback happy, flirty meeting between Mun-ho and Sun-hwa to a follow-up sex scene in which they can barely tolerate each other, show-jumping over months or even years and illustrating with a thwack the melancholy dissolution of sexual ardor.

The mode is icily observational (there are no close-ups), and Hong doesn’t expend very much sympathy on his characters—not even Sun-hwa, now a cocktail waitress comfortable with being used. But it’s a heartbreaking movie nonetheless—after they both sleep at her apartment and awake purporting to remember little, their paths diverge, and we follow Mun-ho deeper into his perpetual night of discontent, looking for love in all the wrong places, standing in the snow. The film’s title, lifted from Surrealist-Communist poet Louis Aragon, may or may not be deeply ironic, but there’s little doubt that the future is far off.