Speaking in another language makes you a different person, especially, I’ve noticed, if you happen to be a non-native fluent in Japanese. The mild-mannered Aussie transforms into a slangy tough-guy, rolling his r’s and living in his own mental version of a yakuza movie. And the frank-talking American who transforms into a master of self-deprecatory, reflexively apologetic keigo (polite language) and wins the “more Japanese than the Japanese” award in her Tokyo suburb year after year.
So what to make of Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s romantic drama “Jiyugaoka De (Hill of Freedom),” which stars the bilingual Ryo Kase as Mori, an unemployed Japanese man searching for his long-lost Korean lover in Seoul? Mori and his Korean acquaintances speak English to each other almost exclusively, with varying degrees of fluency and a refreshing lack of self-consciousness.
Unreal? Perhaps less so than the Korean characters in Japanese films who rattle away in grammatically flawless Nihongo immediately after stepping off the plane at Narita. Charming? Certainly, since Mori is guilelessly forthright about his thoughts and feelings in ways that might get him labeled rude or worse in his native land, but, in his slightly fractured English, sound winningly heartfelt, even when he is being downright blunt. And Kase, who has proven himself one of the best international Japanese actors of his generation in films such as Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) and Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love” (2012), gives nuanced readings to the baldest of lines.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||66 minutes|
|Language||Korean, English (subtitled in Japanese)|
Scripted by Hong, the story moves back and forth in time, in a sequence dictated by Mori’s accumulated letters to his lover Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), which she reads out of order — as seen in short cuts interspersed throughout the film — after dropping and scrambling them. This may sound confusing, but Hong keeps his main narrative lines clear and the pace brisk, with the film clocking in at a barely-feature-length 66 minutes.
Mori, who worked with Kwon at a language school two years ago and once intended to marry her, returns to Seoul with the intention of reuniting, though she has broken off all contact with him. While waiting for her to respond to a memo he has stuck to her apartment door (and wondering if she is still living there) he stays at a cozy traditional-style guesthouse run by a friendly, straight-talking elderly woman (Yoon Yeo-jeong) and patronizes the cute, titular coffee shop run by Young-sun (Moon So-ri), a bubbly former actress who takes an immediate liking to him. He is also befriended by Sang-won (Kim Eui-sung), the guesthouse proprietor’s outgoing nephew, who is always up for a good meal and a drunken carouse.
This is a tourist’s fantasy — enthusiastic and uncritical acceptance by the natives — but Hong artfully creates a corner of Seoul that feels somehow possible, at least for Kase’s affable and attractive, if finally mysterious, stranger. Also, though simple on the surface — even Jeong Yong-jin’s score sounds like the sort of tuneful light classics kids play at piano recitals — the film has a delicately intricate structure, including plot turns that cheerfully trash rom-com formulas.
First and foremost is the affair that springs up between Mori and Young-sun. While proclaiming that the absent Kwon is the person he “respects most in the world,” Mori readily accepts Young-sun’s invitation to dinner and sympathizes when she complains, over a quickly drained bottle of wine, about her indifferent stage producer lover.
She in turn feels a tipsy attraction to this outspoken, sensitive guy and ends up taking him to bed. The lonely Mori proclaims his love for her, but later calls himself an idiot. What about his mission to reconnect with Kwon?
The answer, finally, matters less than the atmosphere, which recalls the casually naturalistic, but carefully observed films of Eric Rohmer. I just enjoyed being in “Hill of Freedom,” though its world may only be a figment of Hong’s imagination. And if not, where can I find that guesthouse?
Fun fact: Born in Yokohama in 1974, Ryo Kase spent most of his first seven years in Bellevue, Washington, where he grew up speaking both English and Japanese. His model and mentor as an actor was Tadanobu Asano, who made dozens of Japanese indie films before launching an international career in such Hollywood fare as “Thor,” “Battleship” and “47 Ronin.”