Film Comment Recommends: The Power of Kangwon Province
This article appeared in the June 17 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Power of Kangwon Province (Hong Sang Too, 1998)
Though this restrained, precise drama lacks much of the humor and playfulness that has come to define his work, Hong Sangsoo’s second feature nonetheless fits in seamlessly with the director’s ever-proliferating filmography. Sandwiched between the angsty, violent The Day a Pig Fell into the Well and the more austere, puzzle-like Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, The Power of Kangwon Province appears at first glance to be a positively warm movie, radiant with magic-hour light and the rich colors of its rural setting. Closer inspection reveals what are now all-too-familiar elements of Hong’s storytelling: jilted and obsessive lovers; a series of soju-soaked drinking sessions; and a bravura narrative structure that elucidates the solipsistic, parallel lives of his protagonists.
The film tells the story of Jisook (played by Oh Yun-hong as a flickering of naïveté and wisdom), a college student on vacation in a mountain village with a few friends. After a night of drinking, she ends up in an apparently dangerous situation with a mild-mannered police officer—though, true to Hong’s long-standing insistence on narrative ambiguity, the nature of the encounter is not immediately clear. The second part of the film focuses on Jisook’s former lover, Sangkwon (Baek Jong-hak), a jaded college professor whose indifference to his wife and young child is matched by his lack of career ambition. After he’s invited by a colleague for a weekend in the mountains, the film begins again, this time from Sangkwon’s perspective. Hong patiently braids the two storylines together, nearly bringing the former lovers together before pulling them apart again. Sangkwon’s misogyny and self-involvement—within which he seems to be trapped—and the tragedy of Jisook’s sincere desire for connection are underlined in a bitter postscript that resolves into a subtle, beautiful image of utter isolation.
The Power of Kangwon Province is available to rent at Film at Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema.