Hong Sang-soo is a cumulative filmmaker. His creative shifts are most moving (sometimes only moving) framed within the larger context of his work. The stylistic detour in the coda of The Novelist’s Film, for instance, is likely only meaningful to viewers familiar with Hong’s world and attuned to the momentous feeling a small change in his aesthetic paradigm offers. Appreciating Hong films tends be foremost an act of contextualization. I preface this review with that acknowledgement because In Water, more than anything he’s made, likely won’t appeal to detractors or firstcomers. It’s a film so small it’s liable to seep through the cracks of your fingers, yet also one of the most unique additions to his filmography.
In typical Hong fashion, In Water is about an artist and their craft. Without any script or plan, a young filmmaker named Sungmo (Shin Seokho) enlists two colleagues to shoot a short film. They spend leisurely days strolling, chatting, location scouting, and eating (a cast of only young characters is atypical for Hong, as are the characters’ pizza-and-soda diets). Sungmo is at an internal crossroad, burdened with self-doubts, financial concerns, and loneliness. His isolation is accentuated by a tender flirtation which sparks between his collaborators as they tease each other about Tae Kwon Do moves and potential apparitions. As always, Hong’s a filmmaker enraptured by quotidian details, allowing them to take spotlight over grand narrative arcs.
In the most obvious aesthetic deviation of Hong’s oeuvre, he photographs In Water almost entirely out-of-focus. “I’m sick of a sharp image,” he explained in a post-screening Berlinale Q&A. But it’s more than that. Over the last two decades, Hong’s eyesight has drastically deteriorated to the point where, without corrective lenses, his own natural vision is a vast blur. In Water’s images simulate how Hong‘s eyes see the world: an endless fog, where forms bleed into each other and boundaries between objects and bodies become less tangible.
In this sense (and this sense only), In Water evokes Derek Jarman’s Blue: an aesthetically monolithic film where voiceover and soundscape accompany an unchanging blue screen. In the wake of Jarman’s own lost vision during his battle with AIDS, his eyesight was reduced to a perpetual blueness. Jarman’s film presents his own reality, foregrounding his unique sensory experience. In the spirit of Blue, Hong prioritizes his own perception over clarity and sharpness. Though his artistry shares little else in common with Jarman, both filmmakers position their own eyesight as an alternative visual configuration. Both movies are some of the latest late-style imaginable. They’re films with complete apathy towards spectators’ expectations, liberated from the rigid confines of standard image-making. They exist for themselves, with nothing to prove.
This is a laidback and stress-free movie even by Hong’s standards. There’s almost no interpersonal conflict, just glimmers of an aching melancholia. Most of the feeling stems from Sungmo and the quiet orb of uncertainty which engulfs him. At one point, Hong films him standing static in a yard, soundtracked by grating wind. The sounds are crisp while the image remains blurred. It’s a moment without movement, prolonged into intense lonesomeness. Later, in a more conventional beat, he calls an ex-girlfriend on the phone. There’s nothing revealing in their chat, just the innate melancholy of the past flooding into the present. Because In Water avoids outward emotional displays, its quiets and stillnesses bear a poignant nakedness.
Still, I was struck by how much less emotional In Water is than most Hong movies. Its joys and sadnesses are particularly muted and the characters feel a bit vague. At times, the film feels more like a conceptual exercise: an alien form for a Hong movie to take! However, the last shot of the movie is among the most moving in Hong’s body of work. Its music, duration, and the out-of-focusness result in a delicate and bittersweet finale. The shot rests somewhere between tangibility and abstraction: a perfect blur. It’s an image of absolute sincerity.