Naturalistic to the highest degree, and with just a dash of mystery and absurdist humor, Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran is the most quietly disquieting film of the year. Running just 77 minutes and broken up into three parts, the film follows Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee), a young Seoul woman who visits two women from her past, and happens to run into another, while her husband is on his first business trip in the five years of their marriage. In fact, as she tells each of the woman, she and her husband have not spent a single day apart since their wedding. “It’s what he wants. He says people in love should stick to each other,” she repeats in each of the three encounters.
Repetition is imperative to The Woman Who Ran’s success. By listening to Gam-hee tell her story three times, there’s much to learn about the relationships she’s rekindling by how she brings it up and how far into the conversation. These miniscule variations let us into her psyche as she carefully navigates several major friendships from her younger years so as to seem as comfortable as possible. Each conversation wears the time and distance between its participants differently, as well, making the film a remarkably simple merging of Jeanne Dielman and My Dinner With Andre.
The first two conversations play out relatively simply. Gam-hee is a fashionable city woman in the outskirts of said city. Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa) and Su-young (Song Seon-mi), taking up the first two sections of the film, seemingly have similar relationships with Gam-hee. They’re protective of their quiet personal lives outside of Seoul, even though Gam-hee is almost overly complimentary of their home décor and cooking. In one early interaction, Young-soon’s partner (Lee Eun-mi) asks if she and Gam-hee have been close for a long time. Young-soon playfully, but with just a shred of truthful cynicism, looks at her old friend and asks “How close?” with something of a wry smirk.
These strained interactions, both interrupted by an antagonistic male figure—the first leading to one of the funniest exchanges of dialogue in a film all year—exhibit the way we change and grow, as well as the relationships that might not grow with us. Though while they speak to the unspoken failures and social anxiety normal to adult friendships living in the past, it’s Gam-hee’s frankness and comfort in the unexpected third conversation that shifts these uncomfortable, understated, even mysterious interactions into something so profoundly human.
Conversing with Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), the woman now married to Gam-hee’s ex-boyfriend (Kwon Hae-hyo) both before and after seeing a film at the theater café she happens to run, there’s a realization that they share a lot in common through a shared history they are both ready to move past. By writing and filming such a distinct third act, Hong Sang-soo has crafted an infiltrating examination of adult friendships and the ways in which we lose and regain our ability to connect with other human beings. Impeccably paced and structured throughout, however, the auteur’s minimalist landscape is mined here for every small emotion and tension it’s worth. The Woman Who Ran is at once harsh and cathartic—a small yet profound slice of the human condition that won’t be easy to shake.