Earlier this week, I watched Hong Sangsoo’s The Power of Kangwon Province via Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema, and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t immediately inspired to write a review. As the days slipped by, however, the film’s oppressively bleak atmosphere and deceptively minimalistic style lingered in my mind, gnawing at me; slowly but surely, I began to perceive the profound complexity lurking beneath its surface-level simplicity. True to its title, this visual poem exerts an irresistible power over the viewer; its subtlety and ambiguity are hypnotic, seductive, and sublime.
Like Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express and Hong’s own Right Now, Wrong Then, The Power of Kangwon Province is a diptych, its narrative divided roughly in half between two protagonists whose paths occasionally intersect (though in this case, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that they just happen to pass each other, like a pair of goldfish lazily swimming in the same cramped bowl). At first glance, the story—which consists primarily of long, meandering episodes of aimless sightseeing, drunken arguments, and dispassionate sexual liaisons—seems to be more concerned with this unorthodox structure than it is with any semblance of substance; gradually, however, compelling themes emerge in the ellipses between lines of dialogue, in the gaps between scenes. With very few exceptions, the characters never confront their conflicts head-on, forcing the audience to actively assemble the puzzle of the plot, navigating a labyrinthine tangle of turbulent relationships and unspoken resentments—in other words, we are participants in the drama, rather than passive observers. Sometimes, this “collaborative viewing experience” is utilized to comedic effect; one such drily humorous sequence (which I don’t want to spoil through excessive analysis) revolves around a misplaced umbrella. Usually, though, the technique emphasizes more significant and challenging subjects, including infidelity, alcoholism, the illusory nature of “romance” (particularly when multiple partners are involved), and the contrast between the beauty of nature and the dark, grimy underbelly of “civilization.”
As Hong’s sophomore directorial effort, The Power of Kangwon Province lacks some of the polish of his more recent work, but his distinctive authorial voice remains unmistakable. Beginning as a straightforward travelogue before evolving into a thoroughly captivating meditation on the human condition (a trait that it shares in common with Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train), this rare cinematic treasure is like a chance encounter with a remarkably attractive tourist: it charms its way into your subconscious... and proceeds to haunt your memories forever.