Our Sunhi (2013)

7 01 2014

I could probably tell you what it’s like to have your heartbroken, but in doing so I would be making a gigantic assumption. The assumption that all experiences are the same, and while having your heartbroken might feel the same to everyone, the context of how that happened is very different. I don’t mean in the case that everyone has their own story, but instead that my perspective, as a straight, white, cis male isn’t the only one in the situation. There’s countless films, yes even art films, that will impose this perspective. The sad dude isn’t the only participant in this situation, though, and Hong Sang-Soo’s latest, Our Sunhi, is one of the most crucial examples I can think of that tries to decenter the perspective of the failed romance narrative.

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Sunhi, a recent college graduate, returns to her place of higher learning. She’s interested in getting Professor Choi to write her a letter of recommendation. Although he confesses that she was his favorite student, his letter, written in 30 minutes, is unimpressive. She continues to hang around campus, hoping to get him to write something more flattering. During that time she runs into an old flame, Moon-soo. After several drinks (as per usual for Hong) it’s revealed that he’s still very much in love with her, while she is more ambivalent. She also runs into her mentor, Jae-hak, who has been harboring a crush on her as well. Again, she proceeds with drinking.

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The American title here is particularly fascinating, Our Sunhi, which implies a plural possessiveness over the film’s central protagonist. The perspective is obviously that of the three men in love with her, Professor Choi, Moon-soo, and Jae-hak. The language here indicates the downfall of all their romances, as their possessiveness is not particularly compatible with Sunhi’s intentions to go to grad school in America. This isn’t to say that the three men in the film are particularly unpleasant. They seem nice enough, and with the exception of Moon-soo (when drunk), Sunhi enjoys their company. They’re all attractive enough too! One might ask what’s her problem, but the reality is that love isn’t an solvable equation, it isn’t a game show with correct answers or “right” behavior. It’s a weird and dumb and amazing thing that is often inexplicable. Hong isn’t implying there’s something transcendent about romance, but the opposite. It’s banal, but it still functions in a way that cannot be predicted.

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So what’s the big deal then? Hong’s just made another movie about how emotions and people are complicated, right? Well, yes, he has, but I do think there’s something political to be found in his musings. The film’s most telling bit of dialogue comes from Jae-hak, who asserts that women are realistic, and men are too emotional. In the western world, the inverse statement is often accepted as conventional wisdom. Women are visceral, men are logical. However, we have plenty of evidence of the opposite here. It’s Moon-soo who seems a step away from tears in every scene. It might not be that either gender is inherently more emotional, but instead of our emotional relation to each other, which is of course crucial in the films of Hong and his hero, Rohmer. Both make films that are so particular in how heterosexual relationships function (and more often, fail) that they kind of have to be about gender because there’s so little room for deviation. The men in Hong might seem more emotional, but that’s because they are confronting women about their relationships and they don’t see anything outside of a romance as being worthwhile. So when the women say no, they cry.

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Moon-soo is the most emotional character here and maybe he is really sad, but part of his heartbreak is self-inflicted. He only sees the romantic potential in Sunhi.  She sees him on the street while in a chicken restaurant. She invites him to join him, but he’s hesitant. He submits, but assumes she’s leading him and when his romantic intentions are spoken, he feels teased by Sunhi’s rejection. He can’t see his relationship with Sunhi beyond what happened in the past because in it, he possessed her. She was his Sunhi, and he can only assume that she says no because he did something wrong, or he’s inadequate. Maybe he is, but this assumption hurts his psyche, and doesn’t allow him to even account for Sunhi’s own feelings. The centering on the male in all romantic narratives forces a breakup to be seen as a problem to be fixed. You must correct your mistakes and then you’ll “win” her back. The friendship that Sunhi herself craves should be a win if Moon-soo does care about her. Now, I’m not an idiot. I understand it’s perfectly reasonable to not get over someone. It’s happened to me, but I am suggesting that heartbroken dudes aren’t doing favors for their own pain by centering the relationship on themselves. It’s possible that’s why things didn’t work out in the first place.

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I don’t think anyone has called Hong a political filmmaker, but I do think there’s something political happening in a film like this. Sure, it’s about relationships but at the risk of sounding banal, the personal is political. In this case, Sunhi’s unease is caused by coming into contact with men who see her being “to date.” These are the nice men of the world. They want to caress her, make her feel nice, take care of her, etc. Their intentions are pure but that doesn’t make them saints, nor does it mean Sunhi should date any of them. The revolutionary impulse in Hong is that he provides us with relationships that aren’t tragedies because they don’t work out, but instead tragedies because the heartbroken men never learn and thus, women like Sunhi go through a cycle of men who are perfectly nice but still come at the potential relationship with a skewed perspective. I see this shit everyday among well-meaning male peers who want to “get a girlfriend” assuming it’s a thing you make happen. Hong’s achievement here is showing men that are lonely because they won’t be loved and contrast it with the far worse prospect: being a woman and wanting to be consumed whole by men for the sake of love. Maybe he hasn’t decentered the “lost love” narrative from men, but he has tried to make a film that suggests there’s another participant in a breakup and that participant is like, another human being. I don’t see that a lot.

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2 responses

9 05 2014
Die Unerzogenen / The Unpolished (2007) | Cinema Talk

[…] irony is that a romantic relationship will, in all likelihood, lead her down a similar path. As Hong Song-Soo has showed us, a patriarchal society limits a woman’s agency when she’s in a heterosexual […]

23 07 2014
The Clock (1945) | Cinema Talk

[…] “decentering relationships” that I first discuss in my review of Hong Sang-Soo’s Our Sunhi. Hong’s film expertly shifts the perspective from the men in relationships to one woman, and […]

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