DOSSIER EN
6.05.2020
Hong Sang-soo

Infinite Worlds Possible

“Let nothing be changed and all be different.” Of all the precepts that Robert Bresson has collected in his Notes sur le cinématographe, this riff on an often-quoted historical maxim might be the one that is par excellence applicable to the films of Hong Sang-soo. Since discovering Bresson’s work triggered him to patiently carve out his own singular path through the world of cinema, the South-Korean filmmaker has continued to weave an ever subtly changing canvas of minute variations on the same narrative threads, playfully entwining themes of love, desire, deception and regret.

In Hong’s bittersweet sonatas, typically composed of multiple movements, repeated figures and modulating motives, any relationship or situation is susceptible to variability: there can always be another version, another chance, another time. Some situations present themselves as repetitions, while others accommodate a myriad of storylines that intertwine or parallel each other. Every film contains multiple stories, and is also rich in virtual ones, some yet to be told, others perhaps already told before. Yet for all the doubling, folding and mirroring in Hong’s films, what stands out from their narrative playfulness is hardly a display of virtuosity, but rather, as Jacques Aumont reminds us, a sense of idiocy. This idiocy does not only refer to the innocuous array of trite misunderstandings, misfortunes and missteps that detract characters along divergent or crossing paths, but above all to the sense that everything seems to happen without reason, without a causal or rational order that determines the relations between characters and their environment, between their present and their future. In Hong’s films, there is no particular reason why things couldn’t fall into place differently: every relation entails a multiplicity of relations.

From his feature debut Daijiga umule pajinnal [The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well] (1996) to Domangchin yeoja [The Woman Who Ran] (2020), his latest film that premiered at the Berlinale, winning him the Silver Bear for Best Director, Hong Sang-soo has continuously reinvented his explorations of the very arbitrariness and contingency of life’s connections and directions by crafting his own take on another one of Bresson’s precepts: to find without seeking. While the production of his first films was still based on a predefined screenplay, Hong has increasingly refined his working method into a both intuitive and rigorous process of writing and filming. On the morning of each shooting day, he writes out dialogue for the scenes he intends to shoot, gives his cast time to memorize their lines, determines camera angles, and then starts to shoot – most often using statically framed long takes which are only occasionally interrupted by abrupt zooms. The absence of a prefixed template and a receptivity to what transiently comes into view allows for an unravelling of the concrete everyday into unexpected patterns of visual and narrative features, opening up even the most trivial gestures and insignificant details to a web of indefinite resonances.

Stemming from a wariness of generalizations that claim to be transcendent and all-encompassing, this constant interplay between concrete presence – of the people involved and the environments they occupy – and abstract construction is what, more than anything, propels Hong Sang-soo’s singular cinematic investigations into the dynamics of repetition and difference. It is also what brings his work, film after film, ever closer to the art of cinema as it was once devised by Bresson: as a method of discovery. 

This collection of texts and interviews appeared originally as the publication Hong Sang-soo. Infinite Worlds Possible – compiled, edited and published by Sabzian, Courtisane and CINEMATEK, on the occasion of the 2018 retrospective in Brussels. For the online publication, a text by Romain Lefebvre is added in which he takes a closer look at the production process of the very prolific director, revealing the potential outlines of the “Hong Sang-soo method”, as well as an interview on one of his latest films, Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja [On the Beach at Night Alone] (2017). The Dossier closes with a visual contribution, also by Lefebvre, revealing some of Hong’s recurring motifs.

As a whole, this Dossier aims to trace the development of Hong’s remarkable body of work through a collection of essays and interviews that were written and published between 2003 and 2018. Assembled here for the first time, they give an enlightening insight into his cinematic universe, which keeps expanding as a variety of variations on an aphorism that he himself has sketched out in one of his drawings: infinite worlds are possible.

Gerard-Jan Claes (Sabzian) and Stoffel Debuysere (Courtisane)

Translations
Sis Matthé

Copy editing
Rebecca Jane Arthur and Sis Matthé

Thanks to
Jacques Aumont, Jason Beliveau, Sabrina Bonamy (De l’incidence éditeur), Bénédicte Dumont, Jean-Michel Frodon, Julien Gester, Roger Koza, Yura Kwon, Mark Peranson (Cinema Scope), James Quandt, Ouardia Teraha (Cahiers du Cinéma), Antoine Thirion

Article FR EN
17.01.2018

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.”

Conversation EN
6.05.2020

“For me, a film is good if it provides me with new feelings and modifies my way of thinking. That is why form is so important for me. We all share the same material. But the form we use, leads to different feelings or new ways of questioning, to new desires. So I don’t think I can be defined as formalistic or realistic. These categories simplify things. My first three films could be called formalistic, the last ones a little less so. I am only conscious of my desires.”

Article
6.05.2020

1987. Back to Chicago. During a seminar at the Art Institute, I see Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. A turning point. I give up experimental video-art cinema and move on to storytelling. That is when I understand that classic cinema can bring happiness.

ARTICLE NL EN
24.01.2018
Claire Denis 2005
Translated by

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.

Article EN
6.05.2020

More than most, Hong’s films command attentiveness. Shots, motifs, objects, dialogue, and events return, often transmogrified in their second appearances […] come back as narrative or temporal markers, or even as consequential characters, leaving a viewer to feel like David Hemmings in Blowup, scrutinizing Hong’s every image for clandestine signifiers. Placement in the frame is also paramount, as ostensibly casual groupings turn out to be extremely deliberate in their composition – meant to signal social unease, deceit, or shifting allegiances. […] (That Cézanne, a proto-Cubist, is one of the director’s artistic touchstones is no surprise; Hong, like Bresson, another of his formative influences, is a metteur en ordre – an imposer or maker of order, a finder of hidden forms.)

Article
6.05.2020

In reality, [Hong Sang-soo’s] absolute mundanity remains a decoy. Of all renowned filmmakers of the last ten years, he is without a doubt the one that has least searched for signature effects and immediate tokens of seduction, with the relative exception of the beautiful harshness of his black and white films. He remains a filmmaker of pure visual prose, all the while constructing stories whose framework is related to pure, poetic arbitrariness. So is Hong Sang-soo a filmmaker of prose or poetry? It’s a pity that Pasolini isn’t around anymore to give us the answer.

ARTICLE EN
7.02.2018

In The Day He Arrives, a soju-fueled cross between Last Year at Marienbad and Groundhog Day, Yoo Seongjun, a lapsed director self-exiled to the provinces, roams the streets and bars of Seoul much as X wanders the hallways and gardens of Marienbad, through an endless repetition of settings, characters, and incidents, each reiteration calling previous accounts into question. “I don’t remember a thing,” the bar owner Ye-jeon insists after Seongjun apologizes for what something he has just done, her protestation recalling A’s many disavowals of the past in Marienbad. Whose version does one trust: his, hers, neither?

Conversation EN
6.05.2020

“Imagine this rectangle is real life. I try to come as close as possible to it. How ? Using details of my life, things I’ve lived, things I heard from other people I know or I just met. I always mix different sources, and it’s never about myself, but it looks like something that happened, or looks like its about me. I want it to be like that. I realized that when I was 23 and was writing a script based on a real story. I felt too tense; I couldn’t move. I needed distance. In the same way, my films are never a parallel line to reality. What I tend to do is to follow an arrow towards reality, avoiding it at the very last second.”

Article EN
30.01.2019

In Hong Sang-soo’s work there is a constant trait, which is neither really stylistic (it’s not a matter of form), nor frankly thematic (it’s not a matter of content either), and which returns, like a butterfly – and even, as its course is erratic, like a moth, the ultimate uncatchable insect. You will forgive me for calling this trait idiocy, a striking word that somehow touches the singular art, so difficult to describe in sentences, of this not exactly talkative filmmaker.

Conversation EN
6.05.2020

Anne-Christine Loranger met Hong Sang-soo in Berlin the day after the screening of On the Beach at Night Alone at the 2017 Berlinale. Hong Sang-soo: “I try to minimize as much as possible. You know, making things look good visually doesn’t add value to a scene. What's important is that visually things are right. That's what I’m trying to achieve, a truth, a rightness in the scene that’s being shot.”

Article EN
6.05.2020

It’s a notorious fact: Hong Sang-soo does not write screenplays. Or, rather, the practice of scriptwriting melted away as time passed (...) The act of writing, if it takes place at all, is worth little more than as an initial impetu. Hong Sang-soo: “I do not want a scenario in which 95 percent of the elements are fixed in advance since, in the end, the rest of the creative process would be about working on details, the remaining 5%. What I do want is to find an approximate 30 to 40 percent of the elements in the treatment, 30 percent in the casting and dialogues, and the rest during the shoot.”

Article EN
6.05.2020

[Bandwith warning: this article contains a lot of images]
Owing its unity to its variations, Hong Sang-soo’s oeuvre provokes inventory-making more than others. One will find here a collection of some of the running motifs, those called for by memory and those formed as the images were collected. Floating motifs, from plate to plate – drawing, between rigidity and woolliness, between heaven and earth, an art of posture and distance, in which any relationship and resemblance could be mere coincidence. Clinking as pleasantly, we hope, as glasses on a table.