Filmhounds Magazine

All things film – In print and online

in water – Berlinale 2023 (Film Review)

4 min read

Still Courtesy - FINECUT

Hong Sang-soo, for better or for worse, is now entering the late-period of his filmography. Throughout the 21st century, his oeuvre of delicate human dramas have enthralled audiences from around the world. His simplistic & effective methodology provides the foundation for his dialogue-heavy narratives. For those unfamiliar with his work, his emphasis on meta-textual tropes tends to be a running motif in each of his introverted stories. Throughout his portfolio, viewers often experience tales revolving around neurotic artists and their challenged perspectives. More specifically, the simplicity of his films often toss archetypal characters with artistic professions into ambiguous conflicts.

Particularly in the past few years, Sang-soo has been limiting his budgets. The sixty-two year-old director is now producing more than one film per year. Now more than ever, with his latest self-referential feature, Sang-soo is beginning to fear the end. The end in question is a personal anxiety correlated with his own career, his ability to continue his free-spirited work, and more prevalently — his power to live. As dark as the sentiment may seem, his latest film entitled ‘in water‘ is one of his most engaging, atmospheric, and existential cinematic efforts in recent memory. 

Still Courtesy – FINECUT

At the crux of the film, Sang-soo implements a multi-layered framing device. To configure back to the auteur's fascination with ambiguity, Sang-soo embraces cinematic radicalisation — shifting visual expectations with his elementary Mise-en-scène. In The Novelist's Film, the feature-length exploration spontaneously transitions from monochrome to colour in a quick moment of emotional liberation. The aforementioned shift symbolically represents an inner desire for past-lived memory & buried ambitions. In the film's respective context, the technique encapsulates a painstakingly authentic portrait of creative torment. Love prevails in the subconscious of his character's muted desires.

With in water, Sang-soo weaponises an arrangement of focal-lengths as his prominent semiotic tool. Located in the narrative shoreline, the boundary-breaking cinéaste observes a young director's creative plight on the set of his first filmmaking endeavour. The conflict revolves around his tranquil pre-production process. We witness first-hand discussions on the director's personal artistic pursuits & secondary aspirations. We learn more about the young director's personal mythos on the art of filmmaking. Inspiration grows with each of his newly adopted experiences. The fictional director's amateur project radically changes perspective with the social influences surrounding his bohemian horizons. Sang-soo speaks through the naivety of the young man's sluggish learnings — as the character vicariously represents his own meditations on the medium itself. Through gradual experience and inspiration, we witness the young man's social-influences first hand. The film is a literal reflection of Sang-soo's reality; a cinematic inundation drowned within his complex meta-text. 

Still Courtesy – FINECUT

The shifts in focal-lengths enhance the film's lead perspective as a result. The semiotic relationship between camera and spectator symbolises a literal form of clarity and self-reflection in the protagonist's own artistic block. In moments of communion with friends and creative partners, Sang-soo purposefully provides more depth and lucidity to the projected image. We feel the character's confidence through the cinematic simulacra veil — the young director's arousal for natural exploration ignites motive within his creative rut. In moments of uncertainty, Sang-soo purposefully reduces the clarity of his colourful visuals. The end product enhances the winding connection between idealisation and personal insecurity; as the young director finds questionable stake at the genesis of his project.

The relationship between camera and subject is ever present. The film's self-referential text behaves as a near-perfect critique on the self-image. The (literal) image clarity provides delimitating unease within scenes of endless jargon — demonstrating that the creative process itself is both self-indulgent and radically unpredictable. The characters speak of ghost stories and artistic integrity. They highlight ideologies, found within their perceptions of honour. The gazes of others are dependent for success within the field of their craft. 

The film's end merely provides deeper evidence towards Sang-soo's stringent thesis. Both Sang-soo and the fictional rookie protagonist at the crux of in water are both uncertain of their own filmographies. As the film suggests through a fogged looking-glass, the unpredictability of one's self-narrativization is ultimately the pivotal key to creative success. in water‘s delicate text is purely confessional. As the auteur slowly loses his sight in our present reality, in water eerily carries a near-perfect testimony on Sang-soo's decade-sprawling learnings. In a search for creative aspiration, Sang-soo encourages young artists to find inspiration in the most unlikely of places. in water is a translucent reflection of the beloved director's intimate pastiche; riddled with imperfections found within his sea of shallow drama. A lack of clarity is all part of the process.

Still Courtesy – FINECUT
in water premiered in the  competition as part of the 73rd Berlin Film Festival. The film is currently seeking international distribution.