One of Hong Sang-soo’s sweetest works to date
Among contemporary Korean filmmakers, Hong Sang-soo is as prolific as he is accomplished. Over the past 25 years, he’s directed over 30 features and shorts, and in recent years he’s snagged awards with almost every single one of them. At the 2020 Berlinale, he won the Silver Bear for Best Direction in “The Woman Who Ran”; earlier this year, he won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize for “Le Film du Romancier” (2022). Now, at the Toronto International Film Festival, he’s premiering his latest work: “Walk Up,” otherwise known as “Top” (a pun on the word “Tower,” as it’s inscribed by the Korean original).
Like much of Hong Sang-soo’s recent filmography, “Walk Up” emphasizes black-and-white tabletop drama. The famous and always puzzled Byungsoo (Kwon Hae-hyo) gets involved with three notable women in one building. He first begs stylish interior designer Ms. Kim (Lee Hae-young) to hire her estranged daughter (Park Mi-so) as an apprentice. Mrs. Kim agrees, but not without a few drinks. Although the camera remains still and the trio remain seated, they wander from jokes to curt truths in their increasingly drunken conversation. The themed drinking day then spills over into Byungsoo’s later romantic interactions within the building: first with a restaurateur on the second floor, a real estate agent on the terrace, then finally, tantalizingly, with Ms. Kim on the basement. ground once again.
The film resonates with Hong Sang-soo’s seminal work “The Day a Pig Fell Down the Well,” where two men are befriended by shared affection for the same woman. “The Day a Pig” horizontalizes their relationship, however. They sit across from each other, staring cheerfully out the window together, despite their very different professional backgrounds. “Walk Up”, however, is more concerned with the architecture of the fickle human heart. Like Gustav Bachelard The poetics of space, each floor bears witness to different facets of Byungsoo’s personality. On the first floor, he remains polite and distant; on the second, he becomes a faithful homebody; on the third, he regains possession of his dignity; in the cellar, he draws on brutal honesty. Through it all, a narrow, recursive staircase unites each part to Byungsoo’s complex persona where even a single slip could plunge him into subconscious slumber.
The staircase leads to self-reflexivity, and part of the perceptual fun is in the director’s wry commentary on his own career. In one of the film’s most seductive moments, Hong Sang-soo questions how a filmmaker’s work should be viewed. Should we look at him happily, a glass of wine in hand? Or do you have to sit soberly for the 90 minutes? Is it strange to go to film festivals only for retrospectives? Or should we continue to produce films, like a machine, to stay on the circuit?
In the midst of these thoughts, it’s hard not to smile. The increasingly disjointed conversations and the entirely fixed camera make it possible to delve into the nuances of the actors’ performances. Park Mi-so (who also starred in Introducing Hong Sang-soo” (2021) and “The Novelist’s Movie” (2022)) particularly shines here. His easy modesty seems organic against the matured elegance of Lee Hae- young and Kwon Hae-hyo; her pent-up rage at her estranged father is palpable. From her averted eyes to the cigarette dangling from her fingers, she fully embraces the common girl-next-door grace. Of all the extraordinary characters from “Walk Up,” Park Mi-so adds the suitably plebeian charm of fresh-faced youth.
“Walk Up” features one of Hong Sang-soo’s sweetest works to date. This delightful film isn’t so much a crowd pleaser as it is a sneaky peephole; he marvels at the simplicity of everyday life. All in all, “Walk Up” is a delightful addition to the author’s oeuvre.