‘The Woman Who Ran’ Review: Conversations With Friends

“The Woman Who Ran,” Hong Sangsoo’s compact 24th feature — about an hour and a quarter from start to finish — consists of three visits. Gamhee (Kim Minhee, a fixture of the Hong cinematic universe) drops in on an old friend who is divorced, another who is single and a third whose marriage is a source of some awkwardness between them. Gamhee, who has been married for five years, tells each of her hosts that this is the first time she and her husband, who is away on a business trip, have been apart.

The fact that she repeats this assertion introduces a sliver of uncertainty into what appears to be a tidy, quiet, symmetrical film. That uneasiness — the sense that everything is perfectly clear and utterly mysterious — is as much a directorial signature of Hong’s as smoking, drinking and sudden zooms in.

You might wonder if the vignettes represent chronologically adjacent episodes on a single trip, or if each is an entirely different adventure. The title suggests flight, and it seems possible that Gamhee is running away from home, seeking refuge among women who might understand what she is going through without having to talk about it.

The characters speak plainly and obliquely, chatting about food, weather, architecture and other safely banal topics, as well as about love and work. Gamhee eats a delicious home-cooked meal with Youngsoon (Seo Younghwa) and a not-so-good one with Suyoung (Song Seonmi), which she compliments anyway. With Woojin (Kim Saebyuk), who Gamhee meets in a cafe next to a movie theater, she drinks coffee and shares an apple.

The apple is one of several motifs — another hallmark of Hong’s style — that loop through the movie, producing a sense of structure in the relative absence of a plot. More than once, an apple is peeled and sliced. More than once, Gamhee watches the interactions of other characters through an entranceway security video.

Youngsoon, who lives with a roommate in a rural area, tells Gamhee about a neighbor’s rooster, who harasses the hens, jumping on their backs and pecking at their necks. He’s not trying to mate with them, she explains, “he’s just mean.” The men in “The Woman Who Ran” are like human avatars of that nasty bird, intruding on the leisure and intimacy of women to crow and scratch and ruffle feathers.

One guy shows up to complain about the feral cats that Youngsoon and her roommate are in the habit of feeding. Another rings Suyoung’s doorbell to whine about how she humiliated and insulted him after they slept together. To say much about the third gentleman might count as something of a spoiler, though maybe that’s giving him — a former love of Gamhee’s and a writer besotted by his own celebrity — too much credit.

Hong, a prolific miniaturist with an unmatched eye and ear for heterosexual romantic disappointment, is often compared to Eric Rohmer, the French writer-director who specialized in fables of wayward desire among the bourgeois-bohemian class. To me, he more closely resembles a short-story writer like Ann Beattie or Alice Munro, assembling an anthology of recognizably similar but always distinct approaches to a carefully selected set of characters and themes.

Some of the individual tales may hit the emotions harder or stay in the mind longer, and some viewers may never acquire a taste for his talky, elliptical, melancholy style. For those of us who delight in his elegant explorations of drunkenness, regret, lust and ennui, he is an indispensable comedian of modern manners, good and bad, and his steady (or perhaps compulsive) productivity is a gift. “The Woman Who Ran” is a cinematic sketch, and also the work of a master.

The Woman Who Ran
Not rated. In Korean, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 17 minutes. In theaters.

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