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CIFF 2023: In Water

October 19, 2023


At first, I thought I needed to wear my eyeglasses while watching “In Water”, the latest film from Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo‘s latest film. After some time passed, I realized the moments in the film that were out of focus was purposeful. This was confirmed after I did some quick reading up on it. I didn’t just have a bad copy. This is how “In Water” was presented when it premiered back in February at the Berlin International Film Festival. Once I acclimated myself to this deliberately blurry approach, I was able to give myself over to the experience. However, I noticed it kept me a distance and I was starting to get a headache.

OKAY, SIDE NOTE: Since I’m near-sighted, I typically don’t have to wear glasses while watching films on my iPad, only when I’m watching them in theaters. Yes, the ideal way to watch a film is in a theater, but getting access to press credentialed screener links comes with its conveniences. Still, even if I was to see “In Water” in a theater, I feel like these moments of blurry visuals would impact my overall experience.



The story follows a young man named Seongmo (Shin Seokho), a former actor who has decided to direct his first feature. It will be fully funded by him and shot on Jeju Island in South Korea. Seongmo has enlisted two of his friends for this artistic endeavor, former classmate, Sangguk (Ha Seongguk), will operate the camera and Namhee (Kim Seungyun) will act in it. There’s only one hiccup…Seongmo has no screenplay and he doesn’t know what he will shoot. Hoping the location will spark creativity and searching for inspiration, Seongmo happens upon a young woman picking up trash along the rocky shoreline. For whatever reason, that in and of itself is enough of a muse for Seongmo to run with.

Regarding the aforementioned blur that Hong employs, it’s worth noting that it’s more of a calculating effort or varying degrees of blur. That may or may not make a difference to you, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s something that’s noticeable. Some shots are only slightly out of focus, while some scenes (especially wider shots) are in extremely indecipherable. Clearly, Hong wants viewers to look at scenery or compositions that we may be used to seeing in a different manner. It’s a bold albeit mysterious approach that may not pay off for everyone. I came to acknowledge and respect his artistic decision, but that doesn’t mean I fully understood it. It just reiterates that art is subjective.

Like many of Sang-soo’s films, “In Water” didn’t have a finished screenplay before shooting began. In that sense, you could say that the character of Seongmo is something of an avatar for the filmmaker, just like neurotic protagonists in Woody Allen’s films are often stand-ins for him. There’s also subtle hints at self-reflection here as there are in his previous films. It’s not easy to determine just what exactly Seongmo is all about, but there definitely moments when the character is physically placed apart from Sangguk and Namhee.

In the short amount of time we spend with the three characters (the film is only 61 minutes long) on “In Water”, we can derive that Sangguk and Namhee have a closer relationship. That may also relate to the distance Hong has with his actors on his sets, but that’s pure speculation. Having written, directed, edited, lensed, and composed the score for “In Water”, Hong Sang-soo’s work here remains an impressive feat, no matter how one feels about his use of blur. Perhaps when something is out of focus, it forces viewers to look at things in a different way and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.






“In Water” will be presented at the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) on Thursday, October 19th at 8:30pm (CST) at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It will be preceded by “The Daughters of Fire”, a short film from Portuguese director Pedro Costa, in which a triptych of sisters sing about their suffering after the eruption of a volcano in Cape Verde. Detailed & ticket info can be found here.




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