After watching The Power of Kangwon Province, I have to admit that I miss the Hong Sangsoo that made this film. While his more recent films remain quite entertaining, humorous, and manage to rework his now trademark setup in new and interesting ways, they also don't quite have the potency of his earliest films. And even though Power is certainly not a film for the impatient, due to its languid and observational character study, there's no denying that there's a kind of hypnotic power to the scenes we witness in the film.
Hong again takes a connected multi-narrative approach, this time limiting himself to two. The first follows college student Jisook (Oh Yoonhong) and her friends, Eunkyung (Park Hyunyoung) and Misun (Im Sunyoung) as the three take a trip to Kangwon Province for some touring in the wake of Jisook ending an intense affair with a married man. In the second, we follow the man, Sangkwon (Park Jonghak), a college lecturer who is struggling to get hired as a professor, as he joins his friend Jaewan (Jeon Jaehyun) on a trip to Kangwon Province in well.
And while the characters all do various things and interact with each other and additional characters, the two stories only connect directly near the end of the film, while there are other intersections between the two. Hong's eye for internal conflict is quite impressive in this story as we watch these characters do some rather mundane thing, but there is clearly something else looming in the back of their minds, driving them to behave the ways that they do, and the way that this great internal drama plays out against the banality of their trips makes for a fascinating contrast. Still, I'm not going to lie that the movie felt long and that I struggled to stay awake through parts of it, because the film is filled with moments where nothing of any consequence is happening. The film seems plotless at times.
Yet, even those actionless scenes that I struggled against, all seemed to add to the film, enhancing the observational approach of the film, almost documentary-like in its detachment, and yet gaining intimacy due to the time we spend with the characters. And the way that Hong manages to connect the two characters are surprising, including a moment of fantasy that threatens to break the otherwise very grounded in the real reality that Power presents. Being able to convey such internal drama in so many moments, the actors that Hong works with really shine, giving their characters depth without having to do much, carrying the weight of their backstories in their present.
Power also manages to elevate the production values of the film beyond the expected levels of its 1998 production year, as well as gaining a lot of subtlety in his visual storytelling ability between his debut film and Power, resulting in a film with a solid picture, even if it doesn't have the distinctness of vision that Hong later develops. But it all serves to support Hong's examination of how these characters deal with the consequences of the decisions they make, their fallibility, the potency of their emotions, and how two different people can be so connected by those experiences, even when apart. And in its dramatic meditation, Hong scores well, concluding his atypical narrative in an appropriately pointed, but oblique way. The Power of Kangwon Province is a kind of slow art film that can be a snorefest to many casual audiences, but those looking for a strong observational character study and a very subtly potent drama will likely appreciate Hong's early masterpiece. 8/10.
- Additional Reviews: Koreanfilm.org