The beginning of Sang-soo Hong’s Hill of Freedom is sketched with the playfully sloppy style of children’s book - a zoom on a language center sign shows where, a big “X’ in the middle of the screen (the straps of a backpack) shows who, and broad dramatic gestures show why and what. At a Korean language center Kwon has receives a packet of letters left for her by Japanese Mori. Kwon, overcome with emotion, drops the letters as she’s going down the stairs, losing one and jumbling the others. The rest of the film is told in the order that she reads these pages, which chronicle Mori’s trip to Seoul as he searches for Kwon. The fragments are not jarring since all Mori does is wander around the city, get drunk a new friend, and briefly gets involved with another woman. The theme is underlined again in crayon - Mori is reading a book called “Time,” when asked what it’s about, he shrugs and responds, “time!” The kind of time Mori and Hong meditates on is the kind of wasting, trickling time that make scenes fairly self-contained if not oppressively homogeneous, one scene could easily have come before or after another. In terms of the relationships the main characters, time is not a major factor - intervals are noted, but not for any profound thoughts or emotions they might inspire.
None of this comes together as particularly interesting filmmaking if the dialogue were not spoken entirely in imperfect English, a lingua franca Mori and the Koreans (and one American) he meets use throughout the film. The device doesn’t just point toward a shared past of American domination, it keeps present another historical hang-over that define relationships between contemporary Japanese and Koreans: the legacy of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, which put hundreds of thousands of Korean men in forced labor camps and Korean women in sexual slavery as “comfort girls” for the Imperial Army, crimes the Japanese government sometimes apologizes for and sometimes denies ever happened. Just as counters, desks, and bars define concrete borders between customers and employees, people in need and bureaucracies in modern societies, the imperfect English in Hill keeps the separation between two peoples and a history still waiting for justice present as something to be awkwardly stepped over, leaned on and brushed past in every scene.
But at the same time, the way characters use English really does belong to them. There are subtle moments of tension, but they’re usually defuse themselves as if both parties allow that something’s been lost in translation. The only paroxysms happen in Korean, and again, they’re defused once they’re translated on screen into English. The margin for mutual allowances grows as the mastery of language decreases. If the film uses an elementary style, it's because it has so much hope for people who have to write letters to each other in crayon.
Imperfect English also enables all the film’s romance. Romance thrives on distances and borders - Juliet on her balcony, Maggie Cheung behind her lunch counter in Days of Being Wild, the fear of homosexual desire itself in The Best Way To Walk - it’s across these borders that we’re forced to really see the loved one while we burn with desire for the connection that distance denies. For the most part, imperfect English in Hill is played for laughs. In the same way that children are funny when they bring out all the ironies and contradictions in language when they first learn to speak, and just as precocious children preserve those ambiguities for their subversive sense of justice, the goofiness of English in Hill likewise offers a moment of freedom that fluent English speakers can both find humous and enviable. Their awkward lingua franca momentarily releases character from their histories and allows characters to treat each other like individuals. When Mori, the woman who runs his hotel, Gu-ok, and her nephew, Sang-won, all tell one another other they love each other during Mori’s farewell, it’s played as joke. These people have no words to denote the kind of love one has for an acquaintance, a friend, a lover, or a loved one nor any nuance that denotes condescension toward a race, class, or nationality. It’s the kind of healing some people can only achieve by getting hideously drunk together, as Mori and Sang-won do in several scenes in the film, further simplifying their dialogue. Their English has pushes these characters back to an infancy of expression, and it’s there that these two peoples can consider who they’d be outside of their broken histories. Hong’s neon end titles again make us think of children’s programing: of broad gestures, but not those of propaganda; of dramas where the antagonist is always forgiven; of hope; of play.