“Seeing cows makes me so sad,” Gam-hee declares as she pokes at a plate of beef in her friend Young-soon’s apartment. She can handle the chickens roaming the apartment complex’s backyard, regardless of their fates, but seeing the cartoon-like, large eyes of cows in the countryside makes her feel guilty. There’s a lot of talk about meat in Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran—how to cook it, how often to eat it, whether you should actually eat it at all, and who cooks it better, Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa) or her roommate, Young-ji (Lee Eun-mi), who at times feels more like a servant than a peer. As she pops another cube of beef in her mouth, Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) says she finally thinks she can go vegetarian.
Animal welfare is a frequent topic in the first section of Hong’s latest film, which wanders around Seoul with a somewhat aimless Gam-hee: Young-ji refuses to stop feeding stray cats when her awkwardly aggressive neighbor, identified only as the Cat Man (Shin Seok-ho), asks her to, claiming his wife is so scared of cats that she won’t leave their apartment. Young-ji is further frustrated by another neighbor’s rooster, who ceaselessly pecks at the necks of the chickens until they sport a stripe of featherless skin. This is probably a metaphor for something: Do we treat our friends and partners like animals? Do we peck at someone until they bleed, and then delight in doing it again? This theme disappears with Gam-hee when she sets out for another friend’s home in another neighborhood. It’s best not to overthink the conversations in The Woman Who Ran, but to take them for what they are—sometimes intimate, sometimes insignificant musings on everyday life that could change the way you regard someone, or could slip through the cracks of your memory.
Gam-hee’s friends are all in the middle of romantic upheavals, from divorce to the quieter dissolution of the things they used to like about their marriages. Gam-hee, however, is an outlier, a woman whose relationship with her husband is so fortified that they haven’t spent a night apart in five years until Gam-hee crashes on Young-soon’s couch. “People in love should always stick together,” according to Gam-hee’s husband, and she repeats this creed to each friend without offering her own view. Sometimes her reveal is met with awe or jealousy, but more often Gam-hee’s friends look at her like this is the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard, as if her codependency has overwhelmed her identity. We never get to see Gam-hee interact with her husband—we never really see any of the men in the film, their backs always toward the camera. The Cat Man shuffles his feet, sighs, and looks down; Su-young (Song Seon-mi)’s one-night stand (Ha Seong-guk) begs for attention in her doorway, his face only briefly visible; and when Gam-hee confronts an old flame (Kwon Hae-hyo) now married to her friend Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), he smokes a cigarette rather than look at her or us, preferring to sidestep Gam-hee’s sudden bluntness, her declaration that he’s grown insincere. The film’s men may never address us head-on, but their presence permeates The Woman Who Ran, as none of the women can escape the influence, or even just the annoyance, of the feckless men running in and out of their lives.
While the visits to her other friends are planned, Gam-hee finds Woo-jin by chance, and for the first time we see her flustered and unprepared. Woo-jin gently grabs her hand and apologizes for an unnamed transgression that Gam-hee swears she never thinks about; there’s an intimacy in this gesture that hints at the severity of whatever went wrong between them, echoed later by Gam-hee’s hand on Woo-jin’s knee as they debrief in the latter’s office. Someone scarred this relationship, whether it was a friendship or something more. So the revelation that Woo-jin married Gam-hee’s ex, that her apology was presumably for this uncomfortable new knowledge, felt lackluster. The women in Hong’s film have either spent their time avoiding men or dealing with men who avoid the direct gaze of the camera, the women, the world. We may not know why Gam-hee has chosen to finally spend time away from her husband rather than tag along on his business trip; we may not know what drew her to each of her friends and what still binds her to them now; we may not know if she quits her job, or moves to the countryside, or tries to cut her own hair again. We do know that her life was altered by an aloof man we didn’t know existed during the first half of the film, whether Gam-hee ran from him or not. Both Gam-hee and the film itself cannot separate themselves from the definitions and parameters men impose upon women.
Despite a poignant ending, The Woman Who Ran is an unfulfilling follow-up to On the Beach at Night Alone and Hong’s other celebrated works.