Like someone in love, Hong Sangsoo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon draws out the loneliness of youth as a pretty student negotiates family, love and relationships.
Stealing Beauty by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
First it was Marcel Duchamp in The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors and then most recently, Isabelle Huppert in In Another Country, and now it’s Jane Birkin’s turn to add a little otherworldly glamour to Hong Sangsoo’s latest film. For while there’s a very Rohmeresque ambience to Sangsoo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon with its circular conversations about relationships, there’s also a very strong feeling that Haewon just doesn’t quite belong. And while Haewon admits to feeling like she was born in the wrong age and that she’s too strong for a girl, her college classmates wonder whether she might be mixed blood and her friend Yeonju’s boyfriend categorically states her personality doesn’t suit Korea. It’s a cultural confusion, stirred up by her time spent abroad as a child as much as Charlotte Gainsbourg’s films that leaves her as naked and vulnerable as the men circling about her.
While waiting to meet her mother who is emigrating to Canada the next day, Haewon (Jung Eunchae) bumps into Jane Birkin on the street. It’s enough to fire up her lazy ambitions of becoming a great actress, but she barely attends her acting classes at college. Instead she meets her professor and sometime lover Lee (Lee Sunkyun), a film director who’s taken up teaching to provide for his wife and child. They try to keep their affair secret when they bump into other students at a restaurant, but Haewon gets drunk and confesses all. A few days later, Haewon and Lee meet to hike around Seoul’s city wall, but get into an argument about the boy Haewon dated and slept with when they split up. Haewon skips class, sleeps in the library, meets a professor working in San Diego and hikes the fort again with her friend Yeonju and her boyfriend. And when she arranges with Lee to bump into him there “by accident”, their joy at seeing each other again turns quickly sour and they break up one last time.
The story of a young student and her lovers, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon runs the same course as Hong Sangsoo’s The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, only she’s not a virgin, and they’re not bachelors. Played by Korean model Jung Eunchae in her first leading role, Haewon is a pretty girl and all of the men that surround can’t quite get over it. For them she’s a trophy, a beauty to hold onto even if they can’t quite bring themselves to leave their wife and child. But for Haewon, the men are also objects – film directors and professors from the States who talk to Martin Scorsese on the phone – more like rungs on the career ladder than lovers. There’s no real love here just a complicity, relationships held intact through secrets and lies. But nevertheless, she’s drawn into their worlds, stubbing out their abandoned cigarettes, listening to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony on a hilltop or wearing a gifted watch, as gradually they become part of the fabric of her lonely existence.
In just the same way as the professor from America describes Haewon, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon seeks an absolute truth through its relationships with people. And it is at times shockingly unpredictable with its script – as angelic, softly spoken Haewon declares herself the devil; a fallen angel unable to lie or keep the secrets required of her. Its relationships are brought to life through mutual gain, but shatter through jealousy and the demands of the world, lovers stretched taut into painful compromises where women even date married men for seven years. Relationships fester, but as the final scene reveals, the only absolute truth here is Haewon, her dreamt reconciliation with Lee abruptly pulling the rug from under the whole of Haewon’s story.
A haphazard story of youthful anxiety set on the margins of filmmaking, Hong Sangsoo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is a walking-talking film, like Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight or Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, exposing the fragility of relationships through a series of conversations around the Korean capital. With no domestic space featured (even Haewon only ever wakes up in coffee shops and libraries) the characters are cast adrift in a public wasteland, as much in search of a home as a lover. Seoul is pictured a soulless place, peopled only by unhappy loners struggling to connect. Except perhaps in dreams.
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is released on 11th October 2013