Our Sunhi: digging deeper into Hong Sang-soo
Hong Sang-soo’s Our Sunhi (2013) has been making the festival rounds this year in North America (the film was screened last September during the Vancouver International Film Festival and will be screened this month at the Seattle International Film Festival). His fifteenth film since he began directing in 1996, Our Sunhi is about a young woman asking for a letter of recommendation from a film school professor so she can go to graduate school in America. From this banal starting point Hong weaves an intricate and deceptively simple narrative about male desire.
Sunhi is played by Jung Yumi, Professor Choi Donghyun is played by Kim Sang-joong, Munsu is played by Lee Sun-kyun and is a film director and Sunhi’s ex-boyfriend. Jaehak is played by Jung Jae-young and is an acqaintance of Sunhi, he also knows Munsu but does not really like him, and is good friends with Professor Choi. Jaehak is also separated from his wife at the moment. Jaehak, like everyone else is the film is also a filmmaker but appears to be more established than Munsu. Jaehak is fairly dismissive of Munsu (maybe because he knows Munsu dated Sunhi) and is more friendly and generous to Professor Choi (maybe because he does not know Choi is infatuated with Sunhi). Hong interweaves several conversations between the four characters, repeating lines of dialogue, actions, and scenarios with subtle changes, challenging the spectator’s memory of they saw from earlier scenes as we learn about how these three men desire Sunhi.
After the Sunhi meets with Professor Choi in the beginning of the film she goes to sulk in a bar alone. While she is there Sunhi sees her ex-boyfriend on the street outside and beckons him to come join her. They start talking about his films and Sunhi bluntly tells Munsu to stop running away, going to school instead of making films. This is similar to the advice that Professor Choi gave Sunhi when she asked him for the reference letter. Munsu tells Sunhi that she is the topic of his life, if he makes films until he dies they will all be about Sunhi. “Why am I a topic?” — the topic of Munsu’s films and this film as well, her question applies to both. Munsu asks why Sunhi broke up with but she avoids answering by saying she will tell him later. Sunhi asks if she is weird and Munsu responds by saying she is pretty and his favorite woman. “Don’t leave like that” Munsu says as Sunhi leaves which repeats the line of the stranger Sunhi met in the beginning. When Sunhi leaves Hong follows Munsu to Jaekin’s house rather than staying with his titular character.
Sunhi meets Professor Choi at a bar to talk about the letter. Sunhi asks about this first letter and Professor Choi spins his words to make them sound positive. Professor Choi tells Sunhi that she has hidden ambitions, that she is different. This makes Sunhi even more annoyed because she wants to be thought of as normal, the same as everyone else. In this conversation we learn that Professor Choi is annoyed at Sunhi for never calling him which is why he was so cold to her in the beginning of the film (this line repeats Munsu’s complaint about Jaehak never calling him). They decide to be together and the conversation ends with Professor Choi asking when she wants her new reference letter. She turned on the charm and the professor fell for it.
“Digging deeper” Munsu repeats several times in his conversation with Jaehak. This statement underscores the film, digging deeper into “Sunhi” but always missing the mark, always producing a discourse about this woman without ever arriving at the truth of her. Digging deeper is also what Sunhi slyly implies to Professor Choi when she asks him to rewrite her reference letter. Professor Choi does some digging and realizes he has very strong feelings for his student.
Jaehak is the other connective tissue in this love quandrangle. Choi confides in Jaehak about this feelings for a young student (he does not tell Jaehak that it is Sunhi) and Munsu desperately seeks Jaehak’s advice about Sunhi. Hong withholds from the audience the fact that Jaehak knows Sunhi very well and that he too has feelings for her. This information would certainly recontextualize the scene with Jaehak and Munsu in the restaurant by providing some clear motivation for Jaehak’s responses to Munsu. Hong does let the audience know that Jaehak is separated from his wife at the moment which then gives his brief romantic scene with Sunhi some more dramatic weight and added potential conflict than the other romantic scenes between Sunhi and Munsu/Professor Choi. Ultimately, the conversations with Jaehak reveal more about these men than their conversations with Sunhi.
Some writers have regarded this and Hong’s previous film as marking a shift toward more female-centric stories, citing the use of the female character’s names in the title of each respective film as one reason among others. But, the word “Our” in the title Our Sunhi is more central to the story than the word “Sunhi”. The titular character certainly drives the plot of the film and is the center of all the interactions but only in the sense that desire motivates everything that ever happens. But, Hong does intentionally focus on the men in the film and specifically their infatuation with Sunhi. This film (unlike Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2012)) is more about their obsession with Sunhi than Sunhi herself.
Sunhi is fiercely independent and repeatedly says that she does not need a boyfriend. One of the film’s characters makes this fact very clear saying that Sunhi comes in and out of people’s lives, disappearing whenever she wants, and ultimately only interested in doing her own thing. And this is where her character begins and ends because she has no arc in the film. Sunhi is simply the temporary object of desire for these three men that all coincidentally came into contact with her after her most recent disappearance.
The final sequence of the film is set in Changgyeong Palace where the three men finally meet each other. Each man talks about Sunhi as if they know her well, each describing their own version of Sunhi, saying wonderful things about her, repeating dialogue from earlier in the film, some lines that irritated Sunhi and other lines that pacified her. “But, I don’t know what she is thinking,” says Munsu. Neither do the other men and the same goes for the audience. What begins as a film about a reference letter on Sunhi’s character opens up a male discourse on Sunhi. The title Our Sunhi perfectly captures what this film is about: three men describing a woman but never fully comprehending her.