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‘In Front of Your Face’ Film Review: Hong Sang-soo Weaves a Gentle Hymn to the Joy of Life

South Korean screen vet Lee Hye-young returns as a woman determined to live in the present

This review of “In Front of Your Face” was first published May 7 after its NYC opening.

In the opening moments of “In Front of Your Face,” the tender, moving drama from the great South Korean director Hong Sang-soo (“On the Beach at Night Alone”), a woman named Sangok (Lee Hye-young) wakes up on the couch of her sister’s apartment. She touches her own thigh, then her stomach.

It’s a subtle, passing moment, one that in another context might amount to nothing. But what follows her moment of body consciousness feels relevant, if somewhat mysterious: a form of self-guided meditation, as Sangok’s thoughts become voiceover. “Everything I see before me is grace… There is no tomorrow… This moment right now is paradise.”

It’s a prayer of some sort, with more to follow, and in Hong’s spare world of quiet, muted characters, this type of ambiguous interior reflection and delicate physical gesture can take on larger meaning.

After years of living in the U.S., Sangok is visiting Seoul and that sister, Jeongok (Cho Yunhee). The women spend the morning together getting coffee and walking through a lush, green park, steadily realizing they know very little about each other’s adult lives. Telling details bubble up, slowly, to the surface of what feels like small talk: Sangok was an actress who quit acting. She left for the U.S. because of a man. She has no savings. She works in a liquor store. There’s a suggestion of instability, of more troubling information being held back, but Sangok keeps whatever it is to herself.

Eventually, Jeongok admits to feeling abandoned, but the hurt feelings surge and subside without boiling over. Family love and dutiful forgiveness take priority in spite of what may be unspoken and unanswered. And Hong is in no hurry to decode, either, as minor incidents — a dream Jeongok refuses to talk about, Sangok accidentally staining her blouse — become recurring motifs of concealment and disclosure. To hide the stain under a jacket? To keep your long-lost sister waiting to hear the almost certainly banal details of your dream? To change clothes? Or to decide none of this is a big deal in the face of vague, larger trouble?

The morning turns to afternoon, the sisters part ways, and Sangok visits their childhood home amidst a rush of overwhelming memories. Then a second meeting, this time with Song Jaewon (Hong regular Kwon Hae-hyo), a filmmaker who wants to make a movie with Sangok and resurrect her acting career. They meet in an empty bar, order in Chinese food, and talk. The sequence is classically Hong — nearly 30 minutes duration, during which the camera rarely moves and characters sit at a table, unfolding the story through halting conversations that take on cumulative power.

It’s here that Sangok’s interior monologue takes tangible shape. Her secret is revealed to this stranger, and her visit, her personal contacts and meanderings through gardens, the accumulated silences and solitary gestures begin to make sense. But this reveal isn’t a key to a mystery. It’s not the solution to a narrative problem. It’s the opening of a door into Sangok’s current purpose, one centered on keeping her life her own. Upon learning Sangok’s true situation, Hong is distressed to the point of needing her comfort, and she gives it, simply, telling him, “I believe heaven is hiding in front of our faces.”

It can be tempting to characterize Hong Sang-soo films as minimalist. But if the camera moves slowly or not at all, it’s in the service of a bounty of actors doing what they can do best when given space to be as authentic as possible: faces that react and feel, and extensive (sometimes maze-like) conversation.

Hong strips away conventional “movie” action and distills his stories to bare bones of movement, emphasizing mood and dialogue. People walk and talk, talk some more, explain or obscure themselves, fall into silence, get drunk and blurt out the wrong words at the right time, argue, give up, or reconcile.

Here, Songak’s process of reconciliation, her real conversation, is with herself and her life, in a way not always characteristic of Hong’s art. “In Front of Your Face” moves laterally from the circumspect and sometimes bitter emotions of some of his earlier work, as Sangok’s secret allows her to directly access and openly declare her feelings.

Built on the back of a heavy sense of trouble, and perhaps initiated by the visit and reunion with Jeongok, Sangok’s initial interior focus — talking herself down from restless and obsessive thoughts, repeating reminders to herself to let the past and future slip away in favor of the present moment — liberates her to the point where she can speak without ambiguity about the joy she finds in her life’s current moment, first to a man she’s never met and, possibly, later to Jeongok.

The result is one of Hong’s most emotionally generous films. In a career full of small triumphs, it’s a beautiful gesture of family love, of non-specific spiritual awakening, and self-possession meant to create outward waves of goodness. And it comes down to Sangok’s words, repeated throughout, until they take root and grow: “If I can see what’s in front of my face, then I’m not afraid of anything. Everything is complete. It’s grace.”

“In Front of Your Face” opens in Los Angeles theaters Friday.