Autumn, Autumn ★★★½

[7]

This impressive low-budget Korean objet d'art is going to draw inevitable comparisons to Hong Sang-soo. While such comparisons are not entirely offbase, they are likely to obscure what is fresh and unusual about Autumn, Autumn. The original title, it should be noted, is Chuncheon, Chuncheon, two iterations of the Korean town where the main action of the film takes place. This is a significant clue to what writer-director Jang Woo-jin is playing at, so don't say he didn't warn you.

The film begins on a train headed out of Seoul and bound for Chuncheon. We see three passengers seated next to one another on the sideways-facing seats. Ji-hyun (Woo Ji-hyun) is a young man who has recently graduated high school and is headed to Chuncheon to look for work. A middle-aged woman, Se-rang (Lee Se-rang), is using vacation time from her job to go to Chuncheon; she is explaining to Heung-ju (Yang Heung-ju), the third passenger who is a slightly older man, that she has a best friend who moved from Seoul to Chuncheon. It is thereby implied that she is going to visit this friend, but eventually we learn differently.

The first half of the film follows Ji-hyun. On his way out of the station, he sees an old friend, Min-jung (Kim Min-jung) heading the opposite way, and they make quick small talk. Later, as Ji-hyun wanders about, he heads to the restaurant owned by an old friend's mother. As night falls, he gets Min-jung's phone number and calls him, tearfully apologizing for having fallen out of touch. It's an awkward scenario, but Min-jung handles it with grace, even agreeing to sing to Ji-hyun, a gesture toward the troubled young man's lost days of youth.

Without warning, Autumn, Autumn goes back and picks up with Se-rang and Heung-ju. They are ambling around the city making small talk, sightseeing, checking out the temples and getting a bite to eat at a shabby bibimbap stand. Over time, we discover that the two of them are on an Internet date, and that this trip represents the first time either of them has seen the other. Heung-ju is pleased with what he sees, it seems, considerably more than the polite but uncomfortable Se-rang. The remainder of the film observes this halting, painful dynamic.

Yes, Autumn, Autumn is bifurcated. But there is no repetition or refraction here. Instead we have a diegetically random point of initial contact from which two stories launch. Jang pursues one, then the other, to reasonably natural conclusions. And while Hong is certainly a poet of social discomfort, Jang is cut from a different cloth. The fact that Se-rang is less than taken with Heung-ju, for example, takes time for the viewer (and perhaps even Se-rang) to suss out. And while Ji-hyun probably should not have called Min-jung, they do in fact reconnect.

Autumn, Autumn is a film about humanizing embarrassment, not pinning and mounting it for our examination. We are not watching some sort of black-comedy, slow motion car crash. Instead, Jang offers us the chance to become invested in gradually accring disappointment. In this regard, the final shot is a killer. Heung-ju waits for Se-rang, and then he gives up. But the film never makes it clear -- where does she go? It's as though she, and his hopes, simply evaporate.