The first thing you’ll notice about In Water (Mul-an-e-seo), writer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer Hong Sang-soo’s latest, is that it’s out of focus. The opening titles aren’t, so it’s not a projection error. Maybe it’s because the first image is a long shot? But the second shot is mid-length, and that one’s out of focus, too. Only when we get to an indoor scene can we finally make out the actors’ faces. Then they blur again in the next shot. In Water mostly looks like it was shot, um, in water.

Hong’s eyesight has been deteriorating for a while now, and following last year’s The Novelist's Film, shot on digital in overexposed black and white, he’s now carrying his experimentation into the realm of the nearsighted (In Water is in color on 35mm). He has suggested before that an out-of-focus image can be artistic, and In Water serves as proof of concept. (It’s also a clever way to obscure passersby’s faces and passing cars’ license plates.) Long live Godard!

The blur echoes the inchoate creative impulses of protagonist Seoung-mo (Shin Seok-ho), a young actor who wants to make a short film for, he says, “reputation” — a polite-in-its-frankness cover story for the true motivation of every artist: to make something meaningful that will last. He has come to Jeju Island with his friends, actress Nam-hee (a politely buoyant Kim Seung-yun) and an unnamed producer-cinematographer (Ha Seong-guk, playing a bit of a louche), to scout for locations, but he’s really scouting for inspiration from the gorgeous seaside town.

There’s a book by Helen Sword called Air & Light & Time & Space about the four elements every writer needs, and the same could be said for Seoung-mo. The plot, such as it is, follows the trio around town, with the producer chatting up Nam-hee as Seoung-mo broods in long takes over a stone wall, a fish pond, and that primordial source of creativity, the sea.

Budget, schedule, and catering are mentioned in passing, as are a couple of story ideas Seoung-mo had previously mulled over, but the atmosphere is generally warm, collegial, and supportive. In conversation, the characters constantly circle back and repeat themselves, as if to offer assurance and emotional support to the person presenting a new idea or perspective. Over the film’s 61 minutes, Seoung-mo’s friends let him find the air and light and time and space that he needs.

And he needs it. Seoung-mo is often seen alone, or off to the side of the others, and the story that he decides to tell ends on a bleak note that adds another layer of meaning to the film’s title. There’s a darkness propelling him — perhaps to do with a lost love (voiced on the phone by Kim Min-hee, Hong’s partner and muse, and the film’s production manager) — or maybe he’s just a saturnine guy, “shy in college,” the producer recalls. The product of his creative impetus isn’t just a contribution to the world; it’s a lifeline for himself.

Fedor Tot argues that the film is a pointed metacritique of the constraints on creativity imposed by the film festival as an institution dependent on funding bodies. But I think that’s just one aspect of the critique. Young artists are seldom allowed to take their time nowadays. Either you’ve got a hit, or you’re out. But art is curdled experience, and it takes time. The work of a young genius, though still great, differs from that of an older one, as Ludwig Wittgenstein shows. And most art isn’t made by geniuses, including Seoung-mo’s.

The blurred focus mounts this critique on two levels. For those who have no patience for work that eschews seemingly basic conventions like sharp focus, Hong is saying that this film and its rewards aren’t for them — they’re too shortsighted. But for those who are willing to go with it and attune to the work, he shows how even the immature work of a nascent artist, crude as it may be, has a charm all its own.

Make no mistake: Though Seoung-mo’s resulting work is rough, Hong’s is anything but. Great artists make you marvel at what they’ve arduously accomplished. But, as Parrhasius and Harrison Ford would tell you, a true Master makes you wonder if it took any artistry at all.

In Water is part of the 2023 Taipei Film Festival.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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