Matter shows up as such: characters emerge in the economy of the spectacular, of exotic disorientation, brutally, as if in a Cézanne painting.
At night, in the back of a cab, in the rumpled sheets of a bachelor’s bed, in a city without limits that could cover a whole territory, we see hotel rooms, restaurants and bars, with nature crouching on the edge of the frame. Visiting a temple means climbing a road that’s drowned in a group of tourists; boating on a lake means being trapped on a paddleboat that looks like a big sky-blue apple tree and fills the whole space. The grass, the slope, the mound overlooking the courtyards, the flowers are miserable.
Like in a Cézanne painting, the subject stands out and appears in full force, without any artifice to mask the honest perception, the nudity, the coupling. In Hong Sang-soo’s films, everything is thought through, willed, even. The walls are airtight, but the juxtaposition of the segments frees a kind of hilarious and cruel gas.
The male characters are envious and cowardly. They’re consumed by the hidden competition that sets them against each other. But, like the film itself, they pursue the heroic quest for their moral (and, for the most part, artistic) truth.
The women are the true heroes, the brave ones. Violated (defeated?), as they are, they remain the masters of time, of the time that divides the past and the present of the story, of all the time lost to the men. I often think about the end of The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, both suicide and take-off. This scene has haunted me ever since I laid eyes on it because it forces us to instantly return to the film’s structure, to the knot of suffering that ties together all characters.
“Because he was wary of the deviations his vehement temperament led to, Cézanne was not very talkative, not even in the small circle of his best friends. He stayed quiet until he, inspired by the comments made around him, couldn’t control himself any longer and launched a witty remark or started swearing to hide his true feelings. Nonetheless, when he thought it necessary to speak, he voiced his opinion with remarkable logic and clarity. It has to be said that his imprecations apparently proved right those who made him a revolutionary, while he was only a rebel by indignation.” – Georges Rivière, 1933
Hong Sang-soo will appreciate the reference to Cézanne, whom he often quotes, and my caution when talking about him. He is like an offered book, of which we discover that certain pages have been carefully torn out and therefore everything is suddenly missing. His films don’t need our agreement; they require total rallying.
Originally published as ‘La sainte victoire de Hong Sang-soo’ in Cahiers du Cinéma, 597 (2005). © Cahiers du Cinéma