Is Hong Sang-soo part of the family of artists (a category that includes makers as important as Ozu and Modiano) that ‘always sign the same work’ ? The idea is so well received that it can’t be of any service to the filmmaker; but the one who never thought that nothing resembled more the last Hong Sang-Soo than the Hong Sang-Soo before last may cast the first stone. His films would thus be chapters of a vaster and more continuous oeuvre to which the work of time would give its material and density, a sort of deliberately unfinished journal, constantly putting the same narrative patterns into the work: emotional hesitation and vacancy, seduction strategies in all their playful and/or derisory dimensions, the impossible reversibility of the male and female views on these matters. Considering the oeuvre to be a continuous flux also means gauging it as a vast landscape, with its own relief, irregularities and peaks of intensity, but also with its own tunnels and false flats generating, even among supporters, moments of fatigue. In this continuous body of work, certain titles seemed less decisive, giving in to repetition. In discussions among admirers of the filmmaker, no one agrees on the highs and relative lows and each leaves the discussion unchanged. That is where it gets tricky. Everything also depends on the first Hong Sang-soo film you discovered and liked, on the time that has passed between each of his films, on whether or not you liked seeing many films by the same filmmaker in a short amount of time (his first three films from the end of the last century were only released in France in one burst in 2003, and he has since delivered almost one film a year) – so many subjective assessments that challenge the usual critical grid.
False Symmetries and Oblique Reverse Shots
Rather than trying to decipher a rectilinear path in this filmography, let us consider it as a card game, where the spectator is free to choose his or her favourites, to see how they relate according to certain hierarchies or deeply personal connections. The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996) already installed this game: four stories with inversions of main and secondary characters. But the informality used by Hong Sang-soo, far from the voluntary relay path of a ‘circular screenplay’ or the trick of film choral, underlines his unique concern as a story- teller: to install biased points of view and oblique reverse shots between incomplete stories, and to insert in each of the fragments a lateral illumination that was unsuspected from the outset.
The starting trilogy installs formal structures that he will never stop recycling afterwards: puzzle films (The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, Oki’s Movie, In Another Country), diptych films in which one and the same place hosts two stories that intersect through different echoes (The Power of Kangwon Province, Woman on the Beach, Hahaha) and a variant of the ‘film cut in two’ in which the story seems to rewind or even restart and repeat with surprising nuances (Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, Tale of Cinema). In Hong Sang-soo’s films, unity is constructed through a collection of scattered fragments or falsely symmetrical subparts. His art of the caesura, very strong in his first films, a lot vaguer afterwards, could even place him on the side of the metric filmmaker while, at first sight, his way of filmmaking seems rather nonchalant and his language rather ordinary. In reality, his 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.
Geometry of Uncertainty
Poetic cinema? Maybe. Musical cinema? Without a doubt, as so many stories function in several movements, like suites or sonatas. But beyond these impressions, also supported by his apparent looseness (increasingly smaller production, increasingly shorter shoots, more and more day-by-day written scripts), Hong Sang-soo’s cinema remains one of the most structured around. His formalism resides inhe dialectic between the indecisiveness and volte-faces of his protagonists and the confidence of his modelizable screenplay constructions, like pure geometric manipulations, but of an unstable geometry. In the image of the moving polygons, the protagonist of Woman on the Beach scribbles in order to explain his erratic theory on the preconceptions and the elusive truth of beings.
Thus, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate and Tale of Cinema are deliberately constructed around axes of symmetry, but also around homotheties between a short narrative model and the film as a whole. In both stories, the protagonists relive, without even realizing it, the legend that was told to them (the one of the snake and the one of the princess in On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate) or the film they went and saw (the one about the suicidal lovers in Tale of Cinema). Nonetheless, even if the models are designed, we stay far away from the expansion of a fictional model into the scale of a feature-length film. On the contrary, these ‘stories in the story’ feed delicious modulations of the old ploy of the mise en abyme. Although Tale of Cinema multiplies the comings and goings between fiction and reality, it avoids a systematic feel by having an equally stylistic screenplay treatment of the film and the ‘film within the film’. The two levels of the story don’t interlock with each other, but play on random and infinite effects of reflection, in both meanings of the term. Hong Sang- soo’s big issue is the invisible infusion of the novelistic into everyday life. At the end of On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, the fate of Gyung-soo, a priori a protagonist without any quality, has become as poignant as the fate of the snake in love with the princess. But when exactly did the mutation take place? It’s hard to say exactly.
Seeing, seeing again, perceiving, but without grasping the invisible tipping point: that was already the formal challenge of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, with all of its decals (of scenes) and shifts (of tempo), out of synch repetitions of moments that acquire a different meaning by being, the second time around, launched a little later, cut a little earlier, lengthened by some dialogue or silence. This rhythmic rule, which could have only appeared as a rhetorical exercise on the polysemy of film editing, actually paved the way for what is today the essence of Hong Sang-soo’s style: the exploration of a game of substitution and duplication that plays with the spectator’s memory and anticipation.
The combinations of the four fragments of Oki’s Movie are therefore much more twisted than what the destitution of their juxtaposition suggests. The impossibility to unravel the exact temporal and fictional links between the stories (flashbacks? recollections? phantasmatic rereadings?) is part of the productive doubt about the truth of persons and affects which is constantly explored by the filmmaker. Always the same patterns, thus, but are they in different configurations? The answer resides in his last two films, in which Hong Sang-soo deliberately confronts the return of the same by accumulating repetitions in such a playful way that he touches on pure screenplay jubilation, doubled with a very Buñuelian irony when it comes to the casting. In The Day He Arrives, the same actress plays the role of the ex and the woman the protagonist falls in love with. The construction of In Another Country, with its triple role for Isabelle Huppert and its recurring characters, is as much based on the pure experience of the chemistry of feelings (consecutively bringing three women into an a priori identical environment and observing the different reactions) as on pictorial observation (changing the foreground figure to see how the background evolves). Far from any rigidity, this dispositif proves incredibly malicious, in the image of the character of the lifeguard, who is identical in the three stories but behaves much more unpredictably than the spectator’s expectations. We expected ‘again’, but we get ‘either, or’. That is precisely Hong Sang-soo’s sleight of hand: making us believe that he is constantly directing the same film in order to quietly ameliorate the construction of his scaffolding of fictional deployment, a drunken cousin of Smoking/No Smoking, which would rather be called Drinking/No Drinking in his case. Cheers, dear Hong Sang-soo! Cheers to you and to your cinema!
Originally published as ‘Drinking / No Drinking’ in Cahiers du Cinéma, 682 (2012).
Image (1) from Da-reun na-ra-e-seo [In Another Country] (Hong Sang-soo, 2012)
Image (2) from (2) Book chon bang hyang [The Day He Arrives] (Hong Sang-soo, 2011)