Hong Sang-soo's 30 minute short Lost in the Mountains is one of the finer pieces in his uniformly strong output. Although Hong apparently made short films as a student, this his first officially released short film (at least that I am aware of). One advantage for Hong in making a short film is that many viewers come in with an awareness of his typical style and subject matter. As a result, he can perform some variations that give the work added meaning for those familiar with his output. WARNING: spoilers ahead.
In plot, this is a very recognizable Hong film: a writer drives from Seoul to Jeonju to visit her friend. She calls her former professor and lover and spends the day with him. She then discovers that her friend is also involved with the professor. Very upset by this revelation, she invites her ex-lover, another former student, to join them. A night of drinking and sexual pairings concludes with the four coincidentally meeting the next day. But despite this superficial resemblance, this short has Hong exploring new material.
First, this is one of the few Hong films in which there is a clear lead character, and the first time that this character is a woman. In this way, it feels more like a follow-up to Woman on the Beach than to his last film, Night and Day. Also, for the first time in his films (at least that I can recall), there is a voice-over narration. This makes it his most psychological, closer in tone to Turning Gate, the only other Hong film with a clear protagonist. This combines to make this the most overtly emotional of his films; in fact, compared to the other films, it has a nearly melodramatic feel. This may be connected to the short form; it is as if all the plot of a typical Hong film has been compressed down into this 30 minutes, and as a result has a higher percentage of emotional peaks. One could speculate that this is why the voice-over is used: it provides a kind of narrative economy, that Hong then integrates into the type of story he wants to tell. There is a self-reflexive moment in which he calls attention to this limitation, in which the lead character says that she wants to write something short. For Hong, this time constraint allows him to deal with very familiar material in a heightened register.
The style of the film is both consistent with his other films, with a number of familiar long take compositions as well as many uses of the zoom lens. But the editing is also quicker than any of his films since The Power of Kangwon Province in 1998. There are 45 shots in a 30 minute film, making the ASL roughly 40 seconds. 1o of these shots occur both at the beginning and the ending, a rhyming 5 shot sequence of quick cuts of the hotel district of Jeonju. But even without these shots, the style is more dynamic than usual, not only in terms of editing, but also in relation to camera movement and zooms. This seems to parallel to overall tone of the piece, which has a greater momentum and urgency than other Hong works.
One could see all this as a negative, as Hong having to compromise his style and subject matter to fit unnaturally into this small box of time. I may agree if not for the film's magnificent ending, certainly the most progressive of Hong's career. The scene consists of the four characters confronting each other, with the two male characters in particular locked in an absurd and hypocritical battle of words. Although the scene is very funny, it is at the same time frustrating. We have to stand by and watch this hypocrisy because proper Korean social manners forbid the characters from pointing out the obvious. And because the emotional level of the film is already so high, it creates a strong desire to say something, almost to yell at the screen. And then, the lead character fulfills our wish, finally calling the characters on their lies and leaving the scene. She gets into her car and exits. The liberation of the moment is unmatched in anything else Hong has done. Hong is typically seen as a rather apolitical filmmaker, but within the personal politics of his films, this is his most overt statement.