A Conversation with Hong Sang-soo
The discovery of Hong Sang-soo in France was a sudden one. Three films released together in 2002 – The Power of Kangwon Province, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors – then two more only a couple of months apart this year: On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate and, today, Woman Is the Future of Man. The effect of the filmmaker’s massive irruption is double. Of course, a certain style can be clearly identified, labelling Hong Sang-soo an auteur. But he can be recognized through the manifest simplicity of the processes carried out, as if they are frozen and then repeated almost identically, providing the idea of an auteur with the apparent denial of blocked progress. In short, Hong Sang-soo can only be called an auteur because he shows a withdrawal, the conscience of a limitation, the denial of the visual effect, the refusal to venture into the richness of an imaginary or the meandering of a complex mise-en-scène. So the term auteur takes its first meaning, developed in relation to Hollywood filmmakers: the internal work of an individual in a pre-established form, the minor mining of a major form.
By insisting on the compilation of fragments and the capturing of raw material, Hong Sang-soo expresses his distrust towards the Bazinian ontology, which he replaces with the imperative of art historian Panofsky: “To manipulate and shoot unstylized reality in such a way that the result has style.” Against the immediately given reality and without detours, an a posteriori acquired real. With him, raw material is discovered slowly, mediated by a thousand trivial actions, stubborn repetitions, reflecting a sort of serigraphy. On Hong Sang-soo’s bedside, we find Notes sur le cinématographe by Robert Bresson. If he is not alone in drawing the procedures of modern cinema from these apodictic notes, none other is so attached to positioning in front of this essential work the coherent whole of his own methods. In this interview with Cahiers, he describes his working process clearly and without any grey areas, constructing his own personal manual, the handbook of a contemporary radicality.
Course. At the age of nineteen, I was supposed to pass the entrance exam to the university. But I did not want to study. When visiting one of my friends who played the piano, I said to myself that I could maybe compose. But I quickly abandoned the lessons. Then, a friend introduced me to a theatre director. We were both drunk, sitting side by side. When I told him that I didn’t do anything, he encouraged me to work in theatre. I had never thought of that and I thought it was a fun idea. For three months, I prepared the entrance exam of the theatre and cinema department at the university. Certain professors were very authoritarian, thinking it was important to impose authority in order to work in harmony. At the cinema department, the hierarchy was less explicit, and the students went about with their cameras. I decided to change disciplines and then I left for the United States, tired of Korea and school. Until I was twenty-seven, I did not really direct. I used cinema as a protection. I started drinking. I was devastated. In the US, nothing seemed important, as I was away from Korea. I made experimental films because I naively thought that, within narrative film, only a certain type of already codified thing was possible. It was only when I first watched the Journal d’un curé de campagne by Robert Bresson that I decided to make narrative films.
Woman Is the Future of Man. Some years ago, I found this sentence by Aragon, in the Quartier Latin, on a postcard. I liked it. I knew that it was going to stay with me, but I didn’t really know why. While writing the film [Woman Is the Future of Man], it came back [to me] and I decided to recycle it. The reason is simple: my two male characters live in the present, and the woman apparently belongs in their past. They still remember her and they go looking for her, so she is their future. But this sentence does not trigger any emotions in me. I don’t succeed in understanding it. The repetition causes the words to lose their meaning. I like this feeling of strangeness and confusion. My films are constructed on very concrete situations, but they don’t deliver any message. I hope they result in individual, very different reactions.
Repetition. The comical is caused by people who repeat themselves without realizing it. They are mesmerized by a model they are perpetually trying to resemble, and they are not paying attention to the present. But of course, no one can live without ideals. You can never see things as they are. Every day, I engage in a specific situation and some idea comes between the people and me. I judge them in relation to this idea. This judgment places itself between two opposed things: good or bad, beautiful or ugly, loyal or disloyal. These two extremes come into conflict and it’s up to me to decide if the person has done well or acted badly. I arbitrarily take a decision. At home, I think about it, and I cannot decide with the same clarity. The person is somewhere between these two extremes. It continues to move around. All I have to do is to trace where the individual is located.
Negation. In Woman Is the Future of Man, I wanted to make a mix of two things. The first one is an endless negation of what is false, exaggerated or illusory. Life is a series of situations in which I have to negate what is inside of me. For example, I meet a girl, she behaves a certain way, does certain things, somehow damages me and for that reason I start hating her. Next, I can work with the damage inside of me. Do I have to reject it or keep it? This type of negation, which I practise every day, is an endless job. But I decide not to turn this experience of negation into a system. Otherwise, this system would, in turn, be negated. Everything I do is constructing my way of quickly and correctly negating, so as to hurt no one and to feel free again. You will never reach the truth. There is no unique truth that all of humanity can share. We look for truth and we can’t reach it. However, we already feel emotionally overwhelmed. My feelings are connected to tiny episodes, trivial stories. So there are two processes in my films: a process of negation which does not become a system, and the expression of the conflict between being emotionally overwhelmed and an impossible quest for truth.
Reference. A filmmaker can be struck by something in life, a memory coming from other art forms, from a painting, a photograph, theatre or television, and so on. He thinks he is seizing something tangible. But, really, this thing has already been filtered. It has already passed a prior interpretation that has given it strength and clarity. By passing into film, this piece stays the same filtered, deformed thing. Something strikes me and makes sense; but if I go back, there is always some art object. I work on not using any filtered fragments and on finding raw material. That is why my sex scenes are often called realistic. In reality, I especially look for blank reference material. 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.
Rohmer, Cézanne, Ozu. When I watch Rohmer’s films, they contain what I like in Cézanne. Cézanne stands in front of something concrete, a mountain, trees or a carafe, and he uses this raw material to move towards abstraction. I like the lines he draws between a concrete environment and an abstract construction. The history of art seems to indicate that Cézanne came to a halt and that Picasso, for example, was able to extend and toughen his line. But maybe Cézanne was really looking for this in between. When I see his paintings, I don’t need anything else. For me, Rohmer seems to connect the concrete and the aspiration for abstraction in a similar way. In my second and third films, the relationship between concrete and abstract is sealed: you need to look at the films on two levels. With Turning Gate and Woman Is the Future of Man, I abandoned this very artificial construction and tried to stay in the middle. If I am connected to modern cinema, it is not with the intention of continuing the work of auteurs who have preceded me. I don’t feel like following certain auteurs or already set courses. All the cultural references came to me when I was an adult, while I was abroad. I keep a lot of auteurs from different arts in mind. This body of work then helps me when I think and film. Ozu, above all, still gives me the same pleasure.
Index, Details. When I prepare a new film, something has to make me curious and function as incitement. It can be a formal idea or a narrative situation. I don’t draw up any long-term plans and I don’t stand back and analyze. Woman Is the Future of Man doesn’t change this process. The situation: two men meet and drink alcohol together. They want to find a woman whom both have known. As soon as the situation has been identified, I wait and stay open and attentive to what happens. Pieces come to me in a very independent and irregular way. It can be a dialogue, a psychological movement between two persons in a bar, or a small motif like a red scarf. I write these life fragments on cards that I compile into a small index. At the same time, I attempt to find a form of putting everything together. When the pile is half the height of the final one, I can start writing the script. I choose pieces around the starting situation, which remains the focal point. Fragments come to me. Every day, on the set, I use them to write the dialogues of a couple of scenes: some explanations, some actions, but mostly dialogues. Maybe it is the way I treat details which distinguishes my work from that of other filmmakers. Often, details come and fill in a story that has already been sketched out at length. In my films, these details are already stacked. It is on a formal level that the redistribution, connection and formation of the story happen. It is the fundamental point of my working process. Progress is constructed from these fragments.
Repetition/Progress. Even if I don’t try to change situations, the result will be different. I am not intentionally trying to push forward my style. Sometimes I am tempted, but only in order to enlarge my audience. I try to use my working methods in a better way. I am not worried. My feelings can’t be the same. If I look at my history, these personality changes aren’t arbitrary ; they come naturally. Likewise, I don’t know if the archetypal scenes I film run out or if they are transformed. They are only a reservoir that is gradually filled. If I film archetypes, I can’t change any of them intentionally, as I don’t do that in life either. I can very well change the future, from one film to the other, the types of scenes, the characters, but first I have to be encouraged and I need to feel the urge.
We film scenes in the order of the script. I think it contributes to making the scenes more precise and intense. Two analogous scenes filmed a couple of days apart can be very different. I really prepare everything so that the scenes can be filmed consecutively. For example, even if my sex scenes resemble each other, I am convinced that they can never be identical. I write every day. All that happens to me between the takes influences me. I could very well use something I heard on the bus. Children climbing a hill could appear in the shoot. You need to leave everything open until, in a second, the end decides.
Originally published as ‘Hong Sang-soo: « Un film est bon pour moi s’il modifie ma manière de penser »’ in Cahiers du Cinéma, 590 (2004).