The Power of Kangwon Province, 1998

Aboard a crowded overnight passenger train bound for the seaside resort of Kangwon province, an exhausted, half-asleep, standing commuter momentarily drifts into annoyed consciousness after having been bumped into by an oblivious, bespectacled, casually dressed man named Jaewan (Chun Jaehyun) on his way back to an adjoining car after purchasing refreshments and snacks from a mobile food vendor. The episode would prove to be the first in a series of coincidental near encounters between the young woman, a college student named Jisook (Oh Yun-hong) and her former lover, a married preofessor named Sang-kwon (Baek Jong-hak) who, unbeknownst to each other, is subsequently revealed to be traveling on the same train with his friend and former colleague, the previously observed food cart customer, Jaewan. Having recently separated from Sang-kwon, the melancholic Jisook has joined her student friends Eunkyoung (Park Hyunyoung) and Misun (Im Sunyoung) on the trip to the popular tourist resort for a recreational weekend of communing with nature: lazing on the beach, hiking through the woods (along the way, finding an oddly displaced, dying fish on the ground), and visiting a well-traveled waterfalls attraction where they pass by a polite and unassuming couple along a narrow footbridge on the trail. Accompanied by a genial and accommodating police officer (Kim Yoosuk), the friends spend an aimless evening carousing at a local bar where Jisook’s somber introspection over the recent and unexpected end of her relationship with Sang-kwon provokes a contentious outburst from Misun, even as the chaos surrounding the news of a woman’s suspicious fall from a cliff – the woman on the footbridge – barely registers in the incoherent thoughts of the inebriated young women. Separated from her friends, the reluctant Jisook is left alone with the over-attentive police officer, resulting in an awkward and ultimately unrequited evening of failed intimacy and unavoidable regret.

Hong Sang-soo creates a visually distilled and tonally muted, yet captivating and affectionate portrait of disconnection and longing in The Power of Kangwon Province. Although the film is thematically reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s expositions on fate, chance, and synchronicity, Hong stylistically diverges from Kieslowski’s more structured and formalized approach to cinema, capturing organic character interactions and naturalistic compositions (shot from a fixed camera angle and predominantly using unobtrusive medium shots). The film is structured into two distinct, yet narratively overlapping perspectives – first through Jisook’s point of view, then Sang-kwon’s – establishing a series of situational and episodic coincidences between the recently separated lovers that metaphorically reflect their continued inability to connect beyond physical intimacy: the parallel imagery of the fishes existing outside of their natural habitat (Jisook’s discovery of a fish in the woods and Sang-kwon’s adopted fishes from his vacating neighbors) that reflects the characters’ own sense of emotional displacement without each other; Jisook’s expunged writing in the sand that is repeated in her reaction to the discovery of a message left on the wall of her apartment (later identified to be from Sang-kwon) that illustrates an underlying desire for communication that is invariably left unarticulated (the unrealized attempt at communication, in turn, recalls Jisook’s earlier story of a young secret admirer who had once fallen from a rooftop and instinctively provided her telephone number after regaining consciousness instead of his own); their separate encounters with the woman on the footbridge (whose own mysterious fall mirrors the ambiguous circumstances behind Jisook’s young admirer’s motivation). Creating an understatedly intricate and delicate balance between impulsive divine predestination and the inertia of existential banality, the film serves as an insightful and provocative examination of human intimacy.

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