Somewhere Beyond the Sea My Love Stands Waitin'
There is only one narrative -- also one documentary -- from emerging cinema hub South Korea at this year’s New York Film Festival, U.S.-premièring Hill of Freedom/Jayuui Eondeok, at sixty-six minutes short and sweet. Written and directed by usually long-winded Hong San-soo, this light entry concerns the power of love over distance and language, but any draw lies more in its offbeat secondary players even if they are not intrinsic to that search for the remembered one-and-only.
Young Japanese Mori (Kase Ryô) lands back in Seoul but speaks little Korean, which results in everyone’s using the language in common of English, including in the numerous voiceovers. Since this is a second language -- except for one brief Australian at an awkward loss for words -- spoken dialogue is often stilted, either on purpose for humorous effect or possibly a flaw.
Final resolution and wrap-up are hurried, facile and non-cinematic, in today’s common cop-out of a few seconds’ offscreen voice telling viewers the future. Until just minutes before this, on the hero’s return the whereabouts of Kwon (Seo Young-hwa) is as unknown to him as to us.
It will be difficult for Western audiences to suss out what is what and who, who, in part because of cultural gap but more so because the film story is structured that way. From a reception desk not identified until later, Kwon retrieves a packet of undated closely written letters, which slips from her hands to fall over the staircase banister, thereby mixing up the order in which, at a restaurant-café table, she will read them to writer Mori’s voiceover.
Now unemployed, he even pens one as his flight touches down in the capital to which he is returning. Two years before he had met her at a language academy and fallen in love. Against the odds and his own realistic expectations, he has come back to declare himself to “the greatest person I know,” if he can find her.
It is puzzling that he does not appear to try at the academy until later. He leaves an unopened note on what was her apartment door, lodges at a nearby guest house, mopes a little, observes other people, gets tipsy once or twice, smokes, and meets a few mostly oddballs, including the landlady’s inquisitive nephew whose questions serve to elicit some exposition.
The dropped, now-unchronological billets-doux reveal some of what goes on, though past and ongoing present are at times hard to distinguish one from the other. And there are excrescences, such as the tall young runaway at the guest house who is nudged to hysteria by the nosy nephew, picked up by her short father, inquired about by a prematurely grey-haired man, and for no reason subsequently glimpsed from behind in the street. The returnee for love would not likely write to that lost love about a fling, consummated if still sexless and innocent, though his bedding restaurant-café owner Youngsun (Moon So-ri) after rescuing her dog Gumi may be film-present and not actually written about in the letters which he does not know will reach her, anyway. Although Youngsun in effect chases and would cling to him as an escape from her multiple-woman gangster boyfriend, and although it may speak of differences between East and West, it jars that Mori is able to walk away uncommitted, untroubled, unthinking.
The Japanese’s boyish innocence, indeed that of all the feckless characters and of the overall tone of the tale, is engaging but soon cloying. It may be that such pictures of unsullied love are out of place today or, in any case, too insipid and surface to be of enough interest. The one intriguing passion possibility, that tough serial bedmate boyfriend, does not materialize, though it might have been better, spicier, if he had even if his reportedly rough edges are so only by comparison.