It doesn’t become clear what In Front of Your Face is really about till pretty far in, though its sheer emotional refinement means we can never really get close to its characters, anyway. Hong Sang-soo has proved his directorial talent in Cannes – eleven times to be precise – and elsewhere too, but In Front of Your Face is a missable entry to the filmmaker’s impressive repertoire.
Lee Hyeyoung is Sangok, a middle-aged émigré actress whose best work is behind her. Sangok was born in Korea, where she became a star and a sex symbol before leaving for America. Though she prospered, she eventually gave up acting. Sangok’s return to Korea – seemingly after a long while – is the basis for In Front of Your Face, which follows its enigmatic lead on her journeys and visits through Seoul. The first stop she makes it at the house of her sister Jeongok (Cho Yunhee), sleeping on her couch. But a subsequent lunch with a fan of hers becomes the more interesting – and revealing – encounter.
Sang-soo has developed a distinct directorial style in his 25 years of feature filmmaking, but In Front of Your Face lacks any visual flair. The grainy digital look darkens scene which are supposed to be light and lights up scenes which should be dark. There are no compelling images to illustrate the film’s elusive themes about dread and inevitability. This might have something to do with the fact Sang-soo has made three films since 2020 and eight since 2017. Slowing down a little to take serious care with each project, as has been the case with some of his best work, seems advisable.
Either way, In Front of Your Face is what’s on offer and Hyeyoung certainly impresses as the film’s emotionally unavailable lead with a buried secret. Hae-hyo Kwon is also stellar as Jaewon, an edgy director who wants to cast Sangok in a comeback role. But aside from the powerful scene they share, Sang-soo’s film labours from one setup to another. If it’s an editorial point about Sangok’s sense of ennui, it’s made very well. But it doesn’t help his film capture the imagination. It wasn’t a huge surprise to look around and see fellow spectators at the Debussy theatre dosing off during the middle periods of In Front of Your Face, even though its succinct 93-minute runtime suggested something a little more audience-friendly.
Ultimately Sang-soo’s film borders on boring, a term critics are often reluctant to use, but audiences seem to express with regularity. In Front of Your Face tries and fails to be something more than its plodding premise, and proves less than the sum of its able parts.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival.