Nobody’s Daughter Haewon - Cinema Review

'the unremarkable trivialities in the life of a fairly unengaging character'

There’s a temptation sometimes when watching world cinema to inadvertently cut both the filmmaker and their film some undue slack, placing more impetus upon yourself as viewer to enjoy the film than you would with most other films. You might tell yourself that you didn’t work hard enough to “get” what the director aimed to achieve, or that the gaps in your cultural knowledge hindered your engagement with the film’s ideas, or that you just weren’t in the right frame of mind to watch a foreign movie. And whilst sometimes you’ll be right, other times you’ll just be watching a bad film. If you’re watching Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, it’s one of those other times.

Following roughly two weeks in the life of film student Haewon (Jung Eun-chae), director Hong Sang-soo struggles from the very start to make his film appear focused on anything more than unremarkable trivialities in the life of a fairly unengaging character. Jung’s performance rarely rings true; other characters comment on Haewon being “strong” at several points throughout, but this strength is never evidenced convincingly by the actress during Hong’s film.

If Haewon is uninteresting, then her college professor and love interest Lee (Lee Sun-kyun) is simply unlikeable. Lee spends much of the film either driving Haewon away, wallowing in self-pity because he has lost her, or whinging about the fact that he can’t have relationships with both his student and his wife and baby. Lee becomes more and more repellent as the film progresses, but the character is so unrelatable that you more than likely won’t care whether he ends up with Haewon, his wife, neither or both.

Elsewhere the film is populated by vacuous characters who one after another fail to leave any impression. The first fifteen minutes sees Haewon meet with her mother (Kim Ja-ok) for the first time in five years before she moves to Canada to live with her son. Rather than punctuating the film’s opening with an emotional crescendo down from which the rest of Haewon’s story can unfurl, we get a flat and tedious quarter of an hour devoid of vibrance or purpose, during which we learn very little about either character other than they can exchange niceties about the tritest of matters.

Hong’s direction throughout is basic, sticking largely to lengthy static shots and dreary photography which may be intended to evoke realism but actually just make his film consistently quite boring to watch. Structurally Hong’s film also feels ill-judged. A voiceover provided by Haewon ties the story together here and there through diary entries, including such lines as the redundant “it was raining” (over a shot of Haewon and Lee in the rain) to the alarmingly amateurish “I felt lonely and sad”.

Hong also seems intent on blurring the lines of dreams and reality, although this is perhaps the aspect handled worst of all. It’s entirely possible that large stretches of Nobody’s Daughter Haewon are in fact dream sequences - or even that the whole thing is happening in Haewon’s mind as she sleeps. It’s never made at all clear, although whatever Hong intended it feels at best decidedly unsatisfying, at worst downright insulting to the audience. All that can be said for certain is that we see Haewon asleep at some unusual times during the story, which ironically may mirror your own conscious state whilst watching Hong’s comprehensively bromidic and unengaging film.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon plays the London Film Festival on Wednesday 9th October and is then released in select UK cinemas on Friday 11th October.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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