South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has a seemingly uncontrollable attraction to stories where hapless characters repeat relationship mistakes, often step-by-step. His films typically follow one or more artistic types as they alternately adore and spurn a series of women. The films are packed with mirror images and rhyming characters, and they'd be wanly academic if Hong didn't also sport a dry wit and a fascination with social ritual on a par with Yasujiro Ozu, Eric Rohmer, and Whit Stillman.
Hong's 2004 feature Woman Is The Future Of Man is one of his trickiest. Kim Tae-woo plays a film student who returns to Korea after a few years of failure in America, and Yu Ji-tae plays his best friend, now a university professor married to a rich woman. During a testy afternoon of drinking, they recall a woman they both dated, Seong Hyeon-a, and decide to track her down, in part to apologize for their loutish treatment of her, and in part to see if she's still an easy lay.
In the early going, Hong jumps back and forth in time without clearly indicating that he's doing so, but any ensuing confusion is intentional, since the film is about people who slip back into past patterns. They're also the sort who turn fleeting whims into hard convictions. In one of the flashbacks, a horny Kim gets irritated when Seong is late for an afternoon tryst, and when she explains that she was kidnapped by an ex-boyfriend and sexually assaulted, he offers her a moment's comfort, then gets back on the make. ("I'm making love to you to cleanse you," he explains.)
Hong's characters are hard to like, but they aren't completely unsympathetic, because their obsessions with saying the right thing and being somewhere they aren't is deeply relatable. When Woman Is The Future Of Man brings all its leads back together for a night of subtle sexual maneuvering, the movie gets into a rhythm where every line and gesture feels exactly right. And when the movie ends, elliptically and somewhat painfully, the words of a haunted Kim echo: "This isn't what I imagined."
Key features: A making-of featurette, a handful of cast interviews, and a short but useful appreciation by Martin Scorsese, who puts the film into context within contemporary South Korean cinema.