Woman Is the Future of Man/Tale of Cinema Blu-ray Review: Best Left in the Arthouse

Double feature from filmmaker Hong Sangsoo presents two equally bewildering tales.
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South Korean arthouse cinema doesn’t often receive U.S. Blu-ray release, so kudos to Arrow Academy for making these films available, especially in this dual-movie format. Unfortunately, the projects selected for this release are so bewildering and ultimately unrewarding that they’re difficult to recommend to any but the most fervent admirers of niche dramatic films. Martin Scorcese happens to count himself among that crowd, declaring his admiration for the director and Woman Is the Future of Man as a bonus feature introduction to that film, but I beg to differ with his fawning praise.

As discussed by the actors during their interviews in the bonus features, writer/director Hong Sangsoo employs a loose approach to his filmmaking that starts with just a simple framework that is fleshed out only as each project is in production. This makes it difficult for actors to agree to commit, since they never really know exactly what they’re getting into, and it also results in films that feel like stream-of-consciousness drivel. These films failed to produce any emotional response in me until their ends, when I was upset both times at their abrupt, haphazard conclusions with virtually no payoff. The only aspect I appreciated in either film was the look back at South Korean urban life shortly after the turn of the century, with its already dated fashion, technology, and transportation systems.

In Woman Is the Future of Man, two long-time friends reconnect after years apart, with both coming to terms with a woman they each dated back in their early days. The film employs flashbacks without any warning, making for even more confusion as viewers try to decode the paper-thin story with no point of reference for when we’re in the present or past. Character motivations are unclear, with one of the men (Yoo Jitae) in particular seeming to be a bit mentally unhinged at times, making it odd that either of the other two players would continue to associate with him. Yoo, still best known in the U.S. as the menacing, suave bad guy in the original Oldboy, here is a puffy, reserved nebbish, so at least he has the opportunity to show some range in this cryptic misfire.

Tale of Cinema pulls a fast one on viewers by presenting a story in it first half that turns out to be a movie within a movie by the second half. Again, there’s no warning, no transition, nothing to signal the change, so it takes some time to figure out why we’re suddenly seeing an almost completely different cast and plot. The first half explores a couple who reconnect after time apart and, upset with trajectory of their lives, carry out a failed suicide pact. The second half follows a man pursuing the same woman, but in this story she’s revealed to be an actress who simply starred in the movie presented in the beginning, while he’s the man who was the director’s inspiration for the stunted slacker in that movie. He comes off as such a stalker that it’s completely inconceivable that the actress would spend any time with him, and yet as the film lurches near its conclusion in their love nest, she’s put in the position of being asked to carry out the suicide pact for real. Her reply: “I don’t think you understood the movie”. Me and you both, sir.

Neither of the films are technical marvels, so the Blu-ray format is a bit of overkill. The original image quality is generally washed out, with a muted color palette. The sound is presented in its original 2.0 stereo and new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and while the 5.1 helps expand the soundstage somewhat in exterior shots, the dialogue-heavy and intimate nature of both projects makes either soundtrack option an acceptable choice.

Bonus features are surprisingly robust, with the aforementioned Scorcese introduction, as well as informative and in-depth discussions of both films by noted Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns. Each film also has subtitled interviews with each of the principal cast members, and the disc also includes a substantial making-of featurette for Woman Is the Future of Man. The features are rounded out with stills galleries and the original trailers for the films. The Blu-ray is a classy, expansive release, it’s just a pity its films aren’t all that worthy of the attention.

Woman Is the Future of Man/Tale of Cinema is available on Blu-ray on July 17th.

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