He says he has found his way as a filmmaker while looking at Cézanne paintings in a museum in Chicago. “I looked, and I thought: that’s it.” Before, it was a time when the youth of his country, South Korea, faced the military dictatorship in the street. Not him. “I did stupid things. I was close to suicide. But the violent and idealistic atmosphere of that time left an indelible impression. The disappearance of this difficult but extremely vital time left my generation with a bitter aftertaste.” Sitting in the back of a bar, willing to discuss a thousand things, he ponders this past, which he confirms doesn’t occupy him at all, from an amused distance.
His first three films, three thirds of his oeuvre at present, are finally released in France. “I enjoy it, but I don’t think about what I’ve done in the past. I’m not interested in becoming an expert on my own films.” And it doesn’t bother him that it took seven years for the public to finally meet the oeuvre of an artist whose film debut, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996), immediately got him recognized as a first-rate filmmaker. “It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that the films are finally shown. And the French release of these three first titles is going to help me produce the next one.”
At the beginning of the 1980s, circumstances had led the young man (born in 1961) from marginalization bordering on crime to the United States: “Strangely, it was there that, at 23, I started getting interested in art.” More specifically, in the art of cinema, for which he didn’t have any feeling whatsoever, even though he had studied film before at Chung-Ang University. He feels drawn to experimental cinema; a short stay in Paris, “the city of reference for those who love cinema”, made him discover Robert Bresson’s oeuvre. “Journal d’un curé de campagne made me realize that there was indeed a possibility to get out of the sterile choice between experimental and Hollywood films.”
An Oeuvre of Details
For four years, he constantly carried with him a copy of Notes sur le cinématographe by the author of Pickpocket. Careful not to imitate, the filmmaker says he doesn’t try to find forms already invented by others, Cézanne or Bresson, but is guided by “their life, their courage, their way of addressing things”. Since the astonishing process the conception of The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well is based on – the film is the result of four scriptwriters working separately – he continued to map out his own route.
Hong Sang-soo feels like talking about Paris, about the films he loved and defended at the recent Busan International Film Festival, which discovered him in 1996 and where he was jury president at the end of 2002. He lets himself be led to his own films, starts the majority of his sentences with “I try to ...”. Not to repeat himself; to construct dramatic architectures that are pretty strong in order to reassure his producers and pretty open in order to proceed, while filming, with all the explorations the set has to offer; to film bed scenes as if they were table scenes, “without avoiding these situations, which are part of our lives”, but refusing any voyeurism.
Poetic by its precision, attentive to duration, to the uncertainty of the moment, to outlined movements and to what they betray or control: Hong Sang-soo’s cinema seems to consist only of details, of contingent moments that suddenly get out of hand or explode. “I never aim for generalization; there’s never a global view on society at the origin of a film or even a shot. It seems to me that reality can only appear between the cracks of discrete, hypothetic, uncertain elements. I am wary of clichés and big expressions. I do not believe, for example, that something we could call ‘the’ contemporary Korea exists. I never try to share a truth, but only approximations.”
In the heat of shooting the film, each morning writing the daily dialogues, maximally reducing – “I try to get rid of everything that is not indispensable” – and sometimes changing the whole scene while filming, Hong Sang-soo works with little-known actors: “Stars are too busy with their image to accept what I ask from my performers.”
Since his well-received first feature film, he has forged a solid bond with the production company Miracin. A well-placed trust: benefiting from constant critical support, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996) has sold 50,000 tickets, The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) 70,000, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) 120,000, and the magnificent On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002), still unreleased in France, has already drawn 180,000 spectators in his country of origin.
These constantly increasing “little numbers” encourage Hong Sang-soo to continue along the path he has chosen and for which he recently gave up the teaching position he has held at the university for ten years. But he doesn’t aim for any gigantism, considering frugality as his main quality. He even accepts the prospect of one day filming on light video if he were to encounter any financial difficulties. Nonetheless, the new tools don’t appeal to him at all: “I prefer typewriters to computers, propeller planes to jets. I feel closer to the previous epoch than to the contemporary shape of the world.” This phase difference, this distance, has become the basis of one of the most productive oeuvres of contemporary cinema.
Originally published as ‘Chercher la réalité « entre les interstices »’ in Le Monde, 26 February 2003.