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“Walk Up”

“It’s been a long time. How long has it been?” The first exchange delivers a little puff of amusement for denizens of the Hong Hive (an exclusive club for which “Walk Up” could be the first title in a while to bring in a new recruit or two). Not only is a strained reunion between long-separated friends a staple beginning for the filmmaker, but there’s a little irony in the fact that for us, it hasn’t been long at all. Hong’s last movie “The Novelist’s Film,” played in Berlin earlier this year, while the one before, “In Front of Your Face,” was in Cannes in 2021. Both star Lee Hyeyoung, a lovely, elegant actor whose dormant movie career has been rejuvenated by her Hong joints, and who here plays Ms. Kim, the old acquaintance whom filmmaker Byungsoo (frequent Hong avatar Kwon Haehyo) has come to visit.

Byungsoo has brought along his daughter Jeonsu (Park Miso) to consult interior designer Ms. Kim about Jeonsu’s notion to study in the same field. No one here is particularly close, so the first of the film’s many tableside chats gets off to a stilted start. Soon, though, the wine begins to flow, Ms. Kim begins to flirt and crisply edited, cool-toned scenes that seem to run on from each other seamlessly, turn out not to be happening when we think, and maybe not happening at all. Before we realize it, we’re sliding around around the chicanes of one of Hong’s most cleverly constructed Möbius-strip narratives.

Ms. Kim owns this building, and rents out the upper apartments, through which she takes Byungsoo and Jeonsu blithely, assuring them that “no one locks their doors here.” But later, after the first of the film’s imperceptible folds in time, when Byungsoo is introduced to, then promptly living with, Sunhee (Song Sunmi) who runs the restaurant on the second floor, the landlady/tenant relationship no longer seems so cordial. And by the time Byungsoo is occupying the balcony flat on the top floor, being mothered with wild ginseng and fancy cigarettes by another girlfriend, Jiyoung (Cho Yunhee), interactions with Ms. Kim are downright frosty.

Inasmuch as Hong would ever write one, Ms. Kim becomes the villain of the piece. Forever in the same outfit, forever with her kitten heels clicking unsteadily up and down the concrete steps of the building, she goes from enigmatic, commanding career woman to prying landlady with boundary issues and a fondness for alcohol that, even in typically squiffy Hongland, seems excessive.

Rarely is professional, romantic, familial, creative and existential angst (and this is perhaps Hong at his most early-Woody Allen) delivered with such a light heart. It matches the gently plucked strings of the score and the light, fresh monochrome favored by Hong (again his own cinematographer, editor, writer, composer, producer and sound man; he probably made the sandwiches too), which tends toward the whiter and mid-tone-pale-grayer end of the spectrum.