It all seems so simple at first. But look a bit harder, and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon reveals depths.
Hong Sang-soo’s new film begins on the day that university student Haewon (Jeong Eun-Chae) spends time with her mother (Kim Ja-ok) before her parent emigrates to Canada. After this farewell, Haewon drifts off in an apparently aimless direction encountering ex-lovers, fellow students, friends and handsome strangers.
Haewon might lack direction, but the film is tightly structured. Emotions, locations and motifs reoccur throughout to build up a dream-like, or at least eerie, quality. Haewon ends up returning to the same parks and bars with a variety of characters, flicked cigarettes keep on rolling on the floor (x3) and a weird synth version of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is played by a man sitting on a number of park benches.
There is a story of sorts. In the first portion, daughter and mother say their goodbyes in cafés and a park in a suburb of Seoul. This is the most conventional portion of the film, but still quirky – especially when Jane Birkin turns up. Haewon has been living with her father for the past five years (although we never see him – she is after all ‘nobody’s daughter’) and her relationship with her mother is distant. They exchange some rather existentialist dialogue. “Living is dying,” says the mother “you must do whatever you want in life.” Her daughter replies “I am living like that.”
After the mother has left, Haewon’s former boyfriend, Professor Lee (Lee Sun-Kyun), turns up. Feeling lonely, she has called him to cheer her up. They haven’t seen each other for a year, but he confesses he is still in love with her. Haemon and Lee then spend the day together. They rekindle their relationship, but it goes kaput a few days later. Not only is he married, but he’s also incensed that she had a short relationship with a fellow student. Haemon returns to being nobody’s lover as well as nobody’s daughter.
The film finishes with Haewon asleep at a desk in the university library. Was it all a dream? Was part of it a dream? Would such an intelligent film maker resort to such a ploy? Sang-soo doesn’t like to give us much help in figuring out what his films are all about. He has said he makes films “with a spherical form“. Hmmm. This, he explains, is different from a “triangular film”, which is for him the sort of movie that “serves as a medium to convey a certain message or lesson, in which every element contributes toward its expression.”
Triangular or spherical, Sang-soo does not intend his films to have a point. However, he does find inspiration in the “unfiltered space of living“, what the rest of us call everyday life. Sang-soo explains the perspective he takes in his films, “If one looks at each slice of life without being so self-centered, so impulsive, so purpose-driven, then the arrangement of those familiar slices will escape from being clichés and even become the basis of strange humour.”
When you also hear that Sang-soo works without a script, writing on the hoof each morning, one might detect a touch of Buddhism in his work. Unscripted spontaneity, a detached viewpoint, emptiness of ‘meaning’, and focusing on the ordinary details of life all point in this direction. Whether or not Sang-soo consciously calls on Buddhism or not I do not know, but it brings to mind the teachings of Chinese Buddhist teacher Huang Po who wrote, “The first step is to refrain from knowledge-based concepts…. When body and mind achieve spontaneity, the Way is reached and Mind is understood”.
At one time, Haewon herself says, “I wish I could live in hotels abroad, then die.” This idiosyncratic humour is just one of the qualities that makes the film watchable, even if it never becomes entirely clear why those cigarettes keep on landing on the floor like that. However, you may well want to put it on again straight away to fully take in the perplexing wonder that is Haewon, Nobody’s Daughter.
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is out on DVD on 4th November, 2013.
Check out this interview with Hong Sang-soo on BFI.