The Seasoned Ticket #217

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

Hong Sang-soo’s Walk Up has two lives: one while you’re watching it, and one that exists in the aftermath. I know that this is true of every movie—or at least of the good ones—but it’s particularly true with this umpteenth installment of Hong’s elliptical, minimalist technique. That’s because the material that occupies the film’s 97 minutes is only a fraction of the story, and the rest must expand in the space between all that.

Sound overly precious as a moviemaking tactic? Not in this case. Still, Hong requires that you play along with this particular game, the rules of which only gradually become clear. Walk Up consists of four sections, all set inside a narrow multi-story building. In the first section, a well-known film director, Byungsoo (Kwon Haehyo), brings his daughter (Park Miso) to the building, which is owned by a friend (Lee Hyeyoung), with whom he shares some sort of past; she’s a successful designer, and his daughter might be interested in learning design from her, maybe. From this casual, fumbling, yet oddly fraught encounter, something about the building seems to curse him to remain in its proximity, as though in a fairy tale.

Or so we might infer. As the next section unfolds, we realize some months have elapsed, and Byungsoo returns to meet the designer, only to be diverted by a chef (Song Sunmi) who flirts with him. In the final two sections, he’s rented a room in the building, as his directing career stalls and his health withers; and for the last minute or two of the picture, Hong creates a bit of temporal magic that is much more haunting in context than it might sound if I described it to you—which I won’t. Each section, separated by little bursts of zither-like music, unfolds in Hong’s familiar manner of talk around tabletops, which are adorned, Christmas-tree-like, with empty booze bottles. In his films, these dead soldiers are like markers of how deeply a conversation has progressed, conversations that can be roundabout yet peppered with bitingly (and amusingly) direct aggression.

What happens between these scenes, and thus offscreen, must contain some serious drama. But we don’t see it, and mostly we don’t hear about it. One thing I treasure about Hong’s films, and it is certainly true of this one, is the way their encounters take on stature beyond their first-glance impressions. Maybe we actually are witnessing the monumental material of life, in these extended dialogues and nondescript prowls up and down stairs, and even in the unavoidable punctuation of the building’s beeping passwords—a noise that the movie’s characters no longer hear, apparently, just as they don’t register the constant rattle-and-hum of the city, another layer of this movie’s experience.

Though made up of small pieces, the film’s reach feels large. I’m not always sold on Hong’s observational daydreams, and even in Walk Up one of the sections feels weaker than the others. But it has a beguiling, haunted feeling—a sense that even as things are moving up, they’re slipping away.

Walk Up opens at the Northwest Film Forum on April 5.


March 31, 2023

Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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