A director in his late fifties and his daughter arrive in a renovated building where they are welcomed by the owner – an elegant woman, an interior designer – who shows them around the place, floor by floor. This is how Walk Up begins, the new film by Hong Sang-soo, presented in competition at the 70th edition of the San Sebastian Film Festival (16-24 September), where the Korean filmmaker had already won the Silver Shell for Best Director in 2016, with Yourself and Yours.
In fact, this building we see at the opening of Walk Up will be the only location of the film. There is unity of space, but no unity of time, because each time we climb up a floor, the film proceeds through a temporal ellipsis that takes us further in the future. Each floor, and therefore each level of time, centers around a meeting between the director and a woman who will have an impact on his life. First, the owner of the building, who we guess is also a former lover, and who obviously still has feelings for this man (while he seems rather detached). Then, on the next floor, awaits another woman who tries to seduce him during a long drunken meal. Finally, towards the end, a third woman appears, one who lives in the same building and with whom he establishes a relationship that seems more lasting.
The temporal ellipses are always indeterminate: we believe we are moving towards the future, but it is difficult to measure how much time has passed since the previous episode: a week, a month, a year, perhaps more than that? This temporal uncertainty also affects the characters’ identities. Two of the women resemble each other so much that we wonder if they are not the same person, at different ages. An ambiguity that has an impact also on our interrogation of the motivations of the three women: are they attracted by the celebrity filmmaker, by his personality or by something else? When do self-interest and calculation take over the feeling of love and attraction? Or could they both exist within the same person and at the same time? In this regard, the director’s motivations are also put into question since we quickly understand that he brought his daughter with him in order to present her to the owner of the building, hoping she will help her in her career (the daughter aspires to become an interior designer too).
As always with Hong Sang-soo, irony is one of the main tools for character observation. An irony which turns sometimes into a self-irony, since it is clear that the figure of the famous director (magisterially interpreted by Kwon Haehyo) functions as an alter-ego of HSS, expressing systematically his doubts regarding his profession, his career and his relations with the women around him. At one point, the director even declines an invitation to his own retrospective on the pretext that he will soon retire from cinema and that there is no reason for him to be celebrated on this occasion. This decision causes the irritation of his partner of the moment, who would have liked to take advantage of the trip abroad to have more time and intimacy with her companion.
During the long meal scene, the second woman in the building tells the director she loves watching his movies while drinking and even while being totally drunk, a scene which can be interpreted as an amused comment on the drunken state of many of Hong Sang-soo’s characters in almost all of his films. Curiously enough, during the press conference of Walk Up, a journalist asked Hong if he would like his own audience to watch his films while drinking or being drunk. His answer, laughing: “No, not really.”
The film’s beautiful last scene shows the director in front of the building, practically in the same position as in the opening. It makes us question again not only the temporality of the film, but also our own perception of the previous sequences which suddenly change dimension and appear as a long daydream troubling the protagonist’s mind just before entering. Finally, one has to admit that the question of “reality versus dream” is quite secondary here, and what really important is the infinity of possibilities offered us by Hong Sang-soo in order to imagine our own fiction.
Edited by Savina Petkova
© FIPRESCI 2022