← Part of the Issue: Hong Sang-soo

The Hong Sang-soo Method


Several weeks before the start of Cannes 2016 – where she was due to present Elle by Paul Verhoeven – Isabelle Huppert was contacted by director Hong San-soo, who asked her whether she had any free time to film with him. The actress agreed. And although the festival lasts a “fortnight [quinzaine]”, it would only take nine days for a small team, gathered around the director, to wrap up a new film, and one day to edit. The genesis of Claire’s Camera offers a fresh example of the rapidity with which Hong Sang-soo shoots (Grass, his next film, apparently only took three days to shoot); a rapidity which does not cease to amaze, evoking jealousy in colleagues or serving as fuel for detractors. It makes sense to use the upset of the release of Claire’s Camera to better understand the production process of a director which can, as we shall see, be structured into three indispensable stages: (1) the preparation or the conceptual base; (2) the intuitive decision or chance; (3) the composition or the structure. Along the way we shall see in what way this process, even when disdainful of any notion of “intention,” responds to a permanent project of the director: to combat ready-made images.

It’s a notorious fact: Hong Sang-soo does not write screenplays. Or, rather, the practice of scriptwriting melted away as time passed: meticulously drafted for his first three films, scripts were subsequently reduced to mere treatments or increasingly scattered notes – from about thirty pages for Turning Gate to an estimate of five for Hahaha1  to nearly nothing for Claire’s Camera. The act of writing, if it takes place at all, is worth little more than as an initial impetus:

“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. During the editing process as well, where I sometimes end up cutting out thirty minutes of the film.”2

This evaporation of the screenplay corresponds to the privilege granted to the fragmentary and to discovery. Indeed, Hong Sang-soo distinguishes himself by a way of thinking about his films in a mode of fragmentation. For him, making a film is not the same as unrolling a narrative thread, but rather organizing “surfaces” or putting “fragments” to use within a given structure:

“Organizing surfaces? By that I mean my desire to show that everything, every event, even the most insignificant episodes in our lives, contains everything inside of it. Something very concrete, with a banal appearance, always harbours more. A little episode of our lives can obscure an ensemble of symbols and meanings which pile up as layers, a series of superimposed surfaces. Afterwards they form into a block, a structure, which gives the impression of an entity. But this entity never contains just one idea!”3

“I believe that my films are not made to express a story, but to feature some fragments. I don’t think I have any other option. I take those so-called fragments and, with them, derive a whole structure centred on everyday situations. And within that structure, I select an appropriate rhetoric. And when I go into the shoot, a new process of discovery begins.”4

These declarations raise several remarkable points. Firstly, that structure for Hong Sang-soo is always derivative; it is secondary to the units which make up that very structure. Subsequently, that the point is not to achieve an unexpected structure by organizing parts which are determined in advance, but rather a process of discovery which comprises both the parts and the totality. The director expressively puts an emphasis on the necessity for each stage of the process to be a creative stage, as well as his interest in events that go beyond it.5 These various disclosures of Hong Sang-soo allow us to grasp the principal traits of the process during which fragments are discovered, determined and organised – even if it might seem paradoxical to define such a process, given the degree of fixity this would presuppose.

(1) Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da [Right Now, Wrong Then] (Hong Sang-soo, 2015)

First, there would thus be – pitted against “the intention” or “the message” – the privilege granted to “the situation.” The projects are truly launched from the moment when Hong Sang-soo runs into a certain “incentive,” which could be a formal idea as much as a narrative situation – in a sense, this will be the nodal point around which other elements will be clustered and distributed.6 Some examples are in order here. In the case of Woman on the Beach, the incentive is the fortuitous encounter of a woman on a beach who happens to resemble one of her acquaintances, an encounter which drove a curiousness in Hong Sango-soo on the possible relation between physical and inner resemblance. For Tale of Cinema, it concerned the state experienced when leaving a film screening, when we are still under the influence of what we have just seen.7 For Yourself and Yours, it was about the conflictual relationship between the love we feel for someone and the evil others can speak of that person. These situations-slash-incentives, particular in their relatively ordinary nature and “encountered” by the director in his own experience, can serve as a concrete starting point: Hong Sang-soo does not seek to develop them on a conceptual or abstract level, but rather to deploy these incentives and to embody them in other derivative situations which imply a group of characters and their actions.8 In this way, intentions do not regain the upper hand once the first situation has been put in place, but rather its primacy is reaffirmed with the arrival of each new narrative situation. The first question the director asks himself is never “what do I want to say?” but always “what is going to happen?” And the answer is never given in advance, since it will be decided in accordance with a given place.

Indeed, Hong Sang-soo does not look for locations to shoot what he has already written out, but he rather imagines his scenes, whether at the time of preparing his treatment or during a shoot, based on these places. Situations are thus located, and the films incorporate some traces of this method, if one judges them by his instruction plans or the signs which intersperse them, delineate the sequences and indicate where the characters are to be found: the sequential unity often rhymes with the unity of a place.

Starting from places can “help us make the right decision, to avoid artifice,” however those places only have the possibility of orientating the writing process through a process of impregnation and observation on behalf of the director, in which he discerns certain elements and undergoes certain sensations. And if the writing process can be seen as the “concretisation” of observations, observation and impregnation stretch far beyond the limits of the shooting locations and cover the creative process in its entirety.9 Hong Sang-soo and his collaborators frequently invoke his attentiveness and openness to detail; this is to say, the important role taken by circumstances, chance or coincidence. It seems that each element encountered in course of the process is likely to find itself integrated at a given moment or later.

“Everything that I encounter during the film shoot can stimulate me. For example, I could remember a past event while listening to a conversation between crew members the night before, or the weather at the location that day could stimulate me somehow. Everything that surrounds me could potentially inspire me as the starting point for the details of what I need to film that day.”10

Much of the filmmaker’s work consists of collecting certain elements (which are those “fragments” or “surfaces” mentioned here above) and then summoning them at the appropriate time. This relativizes the importance of place: certain ideas appear on location, but others enter from elsewhere, drawn for instance from the director’s memory more than from what he sees in the present. The unity of a given place opens itself up to all the fragments or surfaces which make up a scene. The closing sequence of Woman on the Beach, where we see Mun-suk, whose car has been covered in sand on the beach, being rescued by two strangers, offers a nice example of this logic, since Hong Sang-soo says that it is a mixture of two experiences: the first, about ten years ago, when Hong Sang-soo, depressed, was hit on the arm by an unknown woman before understanding this was a benevolent reflex on her part to crush a mosquito; the second was more recent, when Hong Sang-soo’s car was covered in sand during a film shoot.11

(2) Haebyeonui yeoin [Woman on the Beach] (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)

The filmmaker often invokes the way in which certain fragments find themselves integrated into his films and are wedded to other fragments drawn from the past or the more immediate present, harbouring possible consequences for the entirety of the film to a lesser (writing a scene) or to a greater degree (orientating the structure). If memories were mobilised on the shoot of Woman on the Beach, the set, although chosen in advance, continued to influence the decisions until the very last moment: it is the platitude of the beach which suggested to Hong Sang-soo to make his characters run in one scene, and Jung-rae will kneel down, in another scene, in front of three isolated trees that the director did not notice when scouting.12 Even though the film had a script, an entire scene in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors has been rewritten around the discovery of a chewing gum packet stuck in the icy crust of a lake, while several other fragments came directly from the actors: one scene was modified because the actress playing Soo-jung knew how to play the piano, and an observation made by the character of Yeong-soo on the long boxer shorts he wears is directly inspired by the actor’s outfit. The actor is indeed, as much as the set and the filmmaker himself, an important purveyor of fragments,13 leading Hong Sang-soo to declare the following about In Another Country

“I saw the light, its beams on the floor. I did not yet know what I was going to do with them, but I knew these elements would be at the heart of the film. The same goes for the place where Isabelle Huppert sees the goats. Precision or rather a sense of detail is essential for me. It had to be that place and no other. When I choose the actors, the first time I see them, I identify a number of facts about them. Concerning the actors, it is this mixture of feeling and intuition, and the details gathered at the locations, which make it so that I have to shoot here and nowhere else. It’s a rather strange and indefinable alchemy that inspires me. What’s beautiful is that everything starts from chance. The chance to meet these places, these actors. I never know what drives me to love a place. This road with this arrow, it’s banal, you might not even notice it. Yet I remember that it immediately caught my eye. As if it was something waiting to be revealed by someone.”14

(3) Da-reun na-ra-e-seo [In Another Country] (Hong Sang-soo, 2013)

(4) Claire’s Camera (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

This citation – while highlighting the importance given to details, places and actors – brings out another problem. If the situation prevails over the intention, if fragments appear and are collected during a process of observation, ending up finding their place in a scene which can be seen as a “reservoir that is gradually filled,”15 it is indispensable that a selection is made, since not everything that is observed is retained or integrated. Yet the selection made by Hong Sang-soo does not seem to correspond to any criteria open to conceptualisation: he senses an immediate attraction to certain elements, knows right away that they will be used, without knowing why he is attracted to them and how he will use them. Put differently, the decisions are not rational and conscious, but they are based on an intuition rooted in place and time.16 A Hong Sang-soo film is put in place both on the spot and on the spur, a quality that responds to the fact that he writes the content of the sequences on the morning of the shoot, with no choice but to decide here and now what will happen a couple of hours later.

Significantly, Hong Sang-soo describes filming as a physical experience, not in the common-sense way of it requiring an effort, but rather in it modifying his way of seeing and feeling things and his own body, turning the shoot into his favourite moment, a way of life and a physical state in its own right.17 It is also essential for him that little time passes between the moment an idea emerges and the moment of its realization, so that everything in fact submits itself to an initial incentive. The time between the starting idea and the setting up of the shoot is short. As Isabelle Huppert remarked, on the way he organises the shoot, Hong Sang-soo “mainly takes into account his desires, his needs and his availability. The script arrives when he has decided it should arrive,” with the consequence that the film crew must be ready to respond to the improvised requests of the filmmaker, at whatever hour.18

Hong Sang-soo himself voices what allows for this condensation of decisions within a single moment: it is a question of managing “to concentrate without thinking,” and it is understandable then that Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography – in which the question is repeatedly raised of the place to be given to chance and his sensations on a shoot – could have served as a viaticum for the South Korean director. “To place the public opposite beings and things, not as some people place it arbitrarily by acquired habits (clichés), but as you place yourself according to your unforeseeable impressions and sensations. Never decide anything in advance.” Or: “Prefer what intuition whispers in your ear to what you have done and redone ten times in your head.” Or: “‘That’s it’ or ‘that’s not it’, at the first glance. Reasoning comes afterwards (to approve our first glance).”19 Achieved by the reduction of delays, this “concentration without thinking” refers to a state in which conscious thought – with its set reflexes and circuits, as Deleuze would say – is taken by surprise, superseded by what escapes it. The shooting method thus entails a specific mode of selection, a curious mixture in which thought (or reasoning) is relegated but not excluded. This curious mixture is nonetheless of key importance and indispensable to the films themselves, to their particular style, as for the overall project of the filmmaker. In order to understand it, we have to insist on two complementary points.

On the one hand, the whole method outlined so far stems from a desire: that the shoot forms a moment where the unexpected emerges, and not the simple occasion of reconstructing a pre-existing image, which would be the result of a cliché or reflex thought.20 A shooting method which privileges the unforeseeable and the intuitive, testifying to a great openness to the real, is the means which the filmmaker gives himself in his battle against the cliché. But with this openness we only have established the two axes on which this oeuvre moves, and we have to slightly wrongfoot ourselves from what we have been describing. 

(5) Jal al-ji-do mot-ha-myeon-seo [Like You Know it All] (Hong Sang-soo, 2009)

Even when valuing the unforeseeable, Hong Sang-soo also invokes the necessity of a “conceptual base” or a formal consistency which allow the various elements of a film to be tied together.21 We have argued before that the structures of the filmmaker were derived from the assemblage of fragments, but this is in no way opposed to the importance of structure in his work, an importance which he gladly declares: “I’m often told I make films about reality. People are mistaken. I make films according to the structures I’ve thought out.”22 This structure is in fact both secondary (derived from the joining of fragments themselves, produced in the course of a process) and primary (what accompanies the elements, a given). The same kind of logic holds for the conceptual base or the conscious thought: always superseded by the shooting process, and always primary. The portrait of a filmmaker open to all winds of the unexpected does not conform to reality, and one evidently cannot neglect the part of the will or the calculated dimension by which his films are marked, according to which they are both oriented in the making (the filmmaker makes choices) and orienting once completed (the spectator has a specific experience).

In fact, next to those who evoke openness, there is indeed no shortage of testimonies that evoke the importance of control. The actors sometimes emphasise the precision with which Sang-soo gives directions for the mise en scène and the great number of repetitions that they must perform, and the cinematographer Park Hong-yeol can speak of a sense that each filmed scene exists first of all as an “inner tableau” in the head of the filmmaker, where the fortuitous elements come to be integrated.23 The frame, the set and the gestures are each time arranged by Hong-Sang-soo, in a relationship to the present but also to the future, with the aim of producing a certain effect on the spectator who will come to see the image.24

But Hong Sang-soo’s rigour and the calculated part of his cinema becomes clearest when one looks at his “writing”: not at the isolated fragments or elements that make up each sequence, but rather at the way in which these are related across the films. The tales of Hong-Sang-soo, which both give off a sense of “naturalness” or of life, can also broadly appear as artificial, in the precise sense that they repeatedly imply writing choices which are tangible and visible in the films themselves. Although in Hong Sang-soo’s cinema people always run into each other accidentally, for instance, we are rather talking about the point of view of creating “premeditated chance,” and the tales are composed most of the time by following an art of combination in which the characters and elements matter above all as pieces in a global dispositif.25  Our Sunhi offers us a beautiful example of condensing these two dimensions, since chance encounters join voluntary encounters here: of the encounters of the female character with the three men, two are due to chance, while the men meet in turn in pairs and by their own volition (always in the same fashion: a character – first Moon-soo, then Donghun – comes to call on Jaehak at his place), before finding themselves in a park in the absence of the young girl, who then appears structurally as being both what reunites them, their shared perspective, and what eludes them. What holds for the characters and their interrelation also holds for the places, which keep reappearing to the same extent that characters return to them, to the extent that the world of film is seemingly reduced to a “game board” composed of box-spaces.26

(6) & (7) U ri Sunhi [Our Shunhi] (Hong Sang-soo, 2013)

The return of the same place and these chance encounters also make up a large part of The Day He Arrives, where the main character, Sungjoon, runs into a former student three times in a row, before successively crossing three acquaintances in a single sequence at the end of the film. In this case, the character himself claims that the series of encounters do not obey any hidden logic but are purely coincidental. But these encounters, which for Sungjoon refer to chance within the fiction, also refer to a will of the filmmaker, arranging within his tale a series of elements in order to better acknowledge its gratuity. The result is an evident paradox: the chance encounters are completely fortuitous and absolutely necessary as part of a structure designed to outsmart causal interpretation. In other words: Hong Sang-soo knows perfectly well what he’s doing when he opts for an integration of this series of encounters here, and the place of elements in the structure refers directly to a conceptual base.

By concentrating too heavily on the situations or the narrative content of his oeuvre, it is sometimes overlooked that Hong Sang-soo is currently one of the greatest contemporary inventors of cinema structures. While each of his films offers a fresh case in point, each structure always remains oriented in a way to outsmarting the attempts at rationalisation on behalf of the spectators, to counter the interpretation or schemas established which are read into the intrigues. The construction of films such as Right Now, Wrong Then, Yourself and Yours and Hill of Freedom are, in a sense, completely controlled, to the degree that they both aim to elude every moral interpretation of the two parties in question and to prevent the spectator from fixing a given identity to a given character, or to reconstruct a temporal continuity or to distinguish between past and present, dream and reality (and one must be astonished, knowing that Hong Sang-soo scripts his films from day to day, by his capacity to create structures with such strong coherence and complexity).

Since his first films, the filmmaker has warned us that his use of repetition should not be seen as a “formal game”, but rather as a way of mobilising and obstructing thought:27 repetition for him corresponds to a certain way of seeing and thinking of life, suitable to his suspension of conventions. In addition, if the shooting method, by granting a role to chance, takes part in a fight against clichés, the control of certain parameters and the rigour of his structures are not at odds with it, quite the contrary: the destruction of ready-made images, in fact, presupposes both the sudden appearance of the unforeseeable and the permanence of a conceptual base which marks an orientation to the activity of the filmmaker. One could put it this way: the unexpected is implied during the shoot, but the welcoming of chance alone does not permit him to banish clichés and certain thought reflexes; on the other hand, the structural composition or the game of combinations as a pure intellectual calculus would not suffice either to create an opening or an indeterminacy on the level of events (not only carrying the status of a sequence within the tale, but the very unfolding of the actions). Hence the necessity of walking on both legs, chance and control, intuition and calculus.28

We are now in a position to better understand the curious mixture mentioned earlier, in which conscious thought, which has been relegated, is not excluded, including the idea that the conceptual base is both transcended and primary. It is the coherence or the guarded orientation of Hong Sang-soo’s work which leads us to formulate the idea that there is, indeed, at the level of his creation process, a base both forgotten and present, present as forgotten, as if it had become inseparable from the physical state experienced during the shoot, equally inseparable from intuition. Since certain choices are made and considered as the right ones, not only in the moment itself but also with regards to the process as a whole, it is in fact necessary that something akin to an orientation would maintain itself – the conceptual base which was superseded is, thus, what continues to determine the orientation in whose function each choice, though explicable, is nonetheless “the right one”, then according to which an adapted structure, or “a solution (...) ends up appearing”.29

(8) Ok-hui-ui yeonghwa [Oki's Movie] (Hong Sang-soo, 2010)

Near the end of our journey, it seems that Hong Sang-soo’s creative process is situated beyond the opposition of chance and control, reality and artifice: the process which gives coherence to his oeuvre flourished precisely at the point where the opposites are reconciled. It requires chance and confusion to get rid of the “already-given” or the cliché, but Hong Sang-soo’s practice does not consist of integrating the surprise into the method, in the same way chance is not in itself expected chance. The important thing, however, is that in order to be expected at all, chance always occurs under the guise of the unforeseeable and the undetermined: each element, from the moment that it appears, is considered in and of itself and external to every project, before being considered “right” by the filmmaker, meaning that it is selected and likely to redirect the whole.30 The selection of a fragment, in this process, merges with a determination, in the double sense where an element is judged “right” at the moment when it is determined itself (it could not be done beforehand, since it is unforeseen) and that its integration into a whole potentially determines the global form of a given film.31

One should, nonetheless, insist on two points. Firstly, the expected coincidence answers to an intuitive decision which determines the selection while shooting and the composition during the edit, guaranteeing that any redirection is made within the framework of an orientation: the opening to the undetermined does not stand for the betrayal of the filmmaker’s project. Secondly, the unforeseen – what is given or what happens in the moment – intervenes in this process as an antidote to the arbitrary and the cliché, the arbitrary here conceived, as Bresson pointed out, as the effect of habits of thought which do not find any support in the things themselves or in the outside world. To work against the arbitrary, Hong Sang-soo requires a process in which fragments are considered as “right” to the film which show themselves only through a series of selections: it requires this open system, in which the end only agrees with the premises by producing the unexpected. 

(9) Photo of the shooting of Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja [On the Beach at Night Alone] (Hong Sang-soo, 2017) by Mark Peranson

Behold a possible synthesis of this creative process, made up of three broad indispensable stages: 1/ the conceptual base or the preparation; 2/the intuitive decision or chance; 3/the composition, total organisation in which each element determined finds itself taken up, or the structure. Following such a scheme, a result can even be considered both wanted and unexpected

The starting ideas and images have to pass through this second stage in order for chance and the unexplainable to be integrated in this way, but the other two stages are equally necessary to guarantee the absence of the arbitrary, so chance is taken over by a will and finds its place in a project, so that it is the object of a choice; so that the inexplicable suddenly becomes necessary. The third stage is a moment of synthesis, since it is the one where the elements which escaped the initial base – expected for this very reason – are reintegrated into a whole which, after having undergone a deviation or a deformation, finds an active principle of orientation and re-joins the initial base. The third stage indeed becomes that of a reactivation of the base past its own oblivion, of a re-totalisation of the elements starting from deviations and fragmentation that are inseparable from the process.

During a recent visit to Brussels, where a retrospective was dedicated to him, Hong Sang-soo declared that he believes there is a correlation between what takes place in films and a specific attitude. What we have termed the “conceptual base” is two things at once: what determines the constant orientation of Hong Sang-soo’s work, his selection and distribution of fragments inside structures, but also what guides the choices of the shooting method itself and stems in the end from a certain way of perceiving the filmmaker’s own life: “I believe we are all conditioned to accept certain ideas as coming from good intentions, and certain methods ready made to give them form. For me, however, it doesn’t work. If I decide to work like that, I will have a sense of betrayal towards myself, which leads to abandonment. When I have an idea, it has to be materialised in a form which is loyal to my way of seeing life.”32

That Hong Sang-soo’s films appear so lovable to us is undoubtedly due to the fact that they, once done, cherish the attitude present at their creation, leaving us better equipped for existence itself. While he gives little psychological directions to his actors, preferring to concentrate on concrete aspects, Hong Sang-soo nonetheless expects something of them: that they be like children, as pure as they can possibly be. But this expectation already widens the choices of the collaborators: “to make films is one of the things that counts most for me in my life. And when I do make them, I want to be happy, surrounded by good people. My collaborators are everything to me. They don’t have to be extremely gifted or well-known. They already grant me something just by not being bastards.”33 For those eager to make films in a couple of days: here are some interesting avenues often neglected in manuals and user guides.

(10) Claire’s Camera (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

(11) Claire’s Camera (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

  • 1See Jean-Sébastien Chauvin and Vincent Malausa, “‘Juste ce qu’il faut’. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 665 (2011), 41. As well as Huh Moonyung, “Interview,” in Hong Sang-soo. Korean Film Directors (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007), 41.
  • 2Matthieu Darras, “La théorie du paquet de cigarettes. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo,” Positif, 520 (2004), 8-11.
  • 3Adrien Gombeaud, “‘Une forme très simple finit toujours par apparaître’,” Positif, 505 (2003), 33-37.
  • 4Huh Moonyung, “Interview,” op. cit., 47. In other interviews, Hong Sang-soo explains that the form of his films imposes itself during the process or that he is not constantly aware of the totality of the film. See Adrien Gombeaud and Hubert Niogret, “‘J’essaie d’accueillir ce qui vient vers moi’. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo,” Positif, 571 (2008), 35-38. And Jean-Sébastien Chauvin, “‘Il suffit de peu pour voir la vie sous un angle joyeux’. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 682 (2012), 28.
  • 5See Adrien Gombeaud, “‘Une forme très simple finit toujours par apparaître’,” art. cit., 33-37. Charles Tesson, “Le désir au quotidien. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 537 (1999), 55-56.
  • 6See, on these points, the need for an “incentive”, the privilege given to the “situation” and the process that follows: Emmanuel Burdeau, Jean-Philippe Tessé and Antoine Thirion, “Un film est bon pour moi s’il modifie ma manière de penser,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 590 (2004), 32-34. [See English translation “‘For me, a film is good if it modifies my way of thinking’,” translated by Sis Matthé, published in Hong Sang-soo. Infinite Worlds Possible (Brussels: Sabzian, Courtisane and CINEMATEK, 2018). Published on Sabzian on 6 May 2020.] Adrien Gombeaud and Hubert Niogret, “J’essaie d’accueillir ce qui vient vers moi,” Positif, 571 (2008), 35-38; Daniel Kasman and Christopher Small, “That Day the Snow Fell: Hong Sang-soo Discusses ‘Right Now, Wrong Then’,” MUBI. The distance vis-à-vis the “message” is expressed in Adrien Gombeaud, “‘Une forme très simple finit toujours pas apparaître’,” art. cit., 33-37.
  • 7See Adrien Gombeaud and Hubert Niogret, “‘J’essaie d’accueillir ce qui vient vers moi’,” art. cit., 35-38. Hong Sang-soo also recounts how the starting situation of Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) appeared to him in Huh Moonyung, “Interview,” op. cit., 69; and the genesis of Our Sunhi (2013), based on a personal experience of editing a motivation letter for a student, in Nicholas Elliott, “‘Faire des films, c’est amusant’. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 702 (2014), 40-41.
  • 8See the interview on the DVD-bonus of the boxset of his first three films, released in France by CTV International. Situations can be “encountered”, but they are nevertheless selected or retained by the director who detects an interest in them as they potentially open up certain problems. See Adrien Gombeaud and Hubert Niogret, “‘J’essaie d’accueillir ce qui vient vers moi’,” art. cit., 35-38: “It can happen to anyone, and this ordinary situation interests me a lot. I feel like digging inside, where I risk touching certain problems.” This has to be linked to what we will say later about the presence of a conceptual background that determines selection – the sensitivity to certain problems depends on this background.
  • 9See Adrien Gombeaud, “‘Une forme très simple finit toujours par apparaître’,” art. cit., 33-37 and Adrien Gombeaud and Hubert Niogret, ““J’essaie d’accueillir ce qui vient vers moi”,” art. cit., 35-38. Hong Sang-soo confides to observe as much as he can before shooting in Daniel Kasman and Christopher Small, “That Day the Snow Fell: Hong Sang-soo Discusses ‘Right Now, Wrong Then’,” art. cit.
  • 10Huh Moonyung, “Interview,” op. cit., 42. See also Emmanuel Burdeau, Jean-Philippe Tessé and Antoine Thirion, ““Un film est bon pour moi s’il modifie ma manière de penser’,” art. cit., 32-34: “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. (…) 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.” [From the English translation ““For me, a film is good if it modifies my way of thinking”,” translated by Sis Matthé, published in Hong Sang-soo. Infinite Worlds Possible (Brussels: Sabzian, Courtisane and CINEMATEK, 2018). Published on Sabzian on 6 May 2020.]
  • 11] Huh Moonyung, “Interview,” op. cit., 85-87. This case of mixing things can be compared to the case of The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), in which a story written by Hong Sang-soo and a story he had been told earlier were brought together: “The idea of the connection, in fact, came to me after a story I heard from a young woman I was having a drink with in a bar. I remember her telling me about the incident, which the policeman tells the girl in the film: the episode of the woman who was found dead in the park, having fallen from a rock. When I got home that evening, I wrote down everything she had told me and I was very careful to leave it as it was in my story. Later, when I read it again, I discovered the possibility of linking the two stories. The rest, the husband of this missing woman, the appointment that the man made for her in the park, to which she did not come, all this was written very quickly, in a single day.” Cited in Charles Tesson, “Le désir au quotidien. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo” art. cit., 55-56.
  • 12See Adrien Gombeaud and Hubert Niogret, “‘J’essaie d’accueillir ce qui vient vers moi”’,” art. cit., 35-38.
  • 13On the shooting of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), see Huh Moonyung, “Interview,” op. cit., 64, as well as the interview on the DVD-bonus of the CTV International boxset. The account of Isabelle Huppert, referring to the way Hong Sang-soo “nourished” himself on her gestures and sentences on the shoot of In Another Country (2012), is particularly clear on this point. Hong Sang-soo sometimes makes her redo what she did, sometimes do what he did himself, and in this case he even manages to use what she did in his absence (the scene where Anne writes a vow on a stone in the temple is taken from a visit by Isabelle Huppert to the temple, which other witnesses told her about). See Isabelle Huppert, “En terre étrangère,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 682 (2012), 30-35.
  • 14Jean-Sébastien Chauvin, “‘Il suffit de peu pour voir la vie sous un angle joyeux’,” art. cit., 28.
  • 15Emmanuel Burdeau, Jean-Philippe Tessé and Antoine Thirion, “‘Un film est bon pour moi s’il modifie ma manière de penser’,” art. cit., 32-34. [From English translation “‘For me, a film is good if it modifies my way of thinking’,” translated by Sis Matthé, published in Hong Sang-soo. Infinite Worlds Possible (Brussels: Sabzian, Courtisane and CINEMATEK, 2018). Published on Sabzian on 6 May 2020.]
  • 16“I need concrete things for writing and filming: without these concrete things, you are floating in space and in the dark. When I choose, when I write, I verify the power of the reality of things, what they can evoke for me, but it always remains intuitive.” Cited in Vincent Malausa, “De jour en jour. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 734 (2017), 35.
  • 17See Jean-Sébastien Chauvin and Vincent Malausa, “‘Juste ce qu’il faut’,” art. cit., 41 (“When you film, you consume the energy of your body and mind, you can concentrate without thinking. This is very healthy, even from a purely physical point of view.”); Nicholas Elliott, “‘Faire des films, c’est amusant’,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 702 (2014), 40-41: “There are other things I enjoy in life, but when I make a film I feel everything around me in a very different way. On a shooting day, I wake up at four in the morning, arrive at my office or the location around four or six and start writing. From that moment until the end of the shooting day, everything that happens to me seems to belong to another world, even if I am shooting in familiar places. I feel very different. (...) It allows me to see things more clearly, like with a microscope. I have a different kind of concentration, I have more patience, more tolerance. It makes me feel good.”
  • 18See Isabelle Huppert, “En terre étrangère,” art. cit., 34; And Nicholas Elliott, “‘Faire des films, c’est amusant’,” art. cit., 40-41: “I shoot something and then maybe during the night this gives me an idea, so I call the actor back to shoot the next day. During this shooting period of less than two weeks, everyone has to be ready. I can call them at any time.” Hong Sang-soo talks about how difficult it was for him to shoot Woman Is the Future of Man, where it was necessary to wait several months for the change of season. See Huh Moonyung, “Interview,” op. cit., 70-71.
  • 19Robert Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe (Paris: Gallimard, 1975). From the English translation Notes on Cinematography, translated by Jonathan Griffin (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), 45, 67 and 69. In addition: “Shooting. No part of the unexpected which is not secretly expected by you” (10); and “Wonderful chances, those that act with precision. Way of putting aside the bad ones, to attract the good ones. To reserve for them, in advance, a place in your composition” (17).
  • 20See also Huh Moonyung, “Interview,” op. cit., 75: “I am cautious about the strong image that I have decided upon in my head in advance. They are mostly the result of a desire to reconstruct an image that I have seen from watching other people’s works.” And Emmanuel Burdeau, Jean-Philippe Tessé and Antoine Thirion, “‘Un film est bon pour moi s’il modifie ma manière de penser’,”art. cit., 32-34: “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. (…) 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.” [From the English translation “‘For me, a film is good if it modifies my way of thinking’,” translated by Sis Matthé, published in Hong Sang-soo. Infinite Worlds Possible (Brussels: Sabzian, Courtisane and CINEMATEK, 2018). Published on Sabzian on 6 May 2020.]
  • 21For the idea of a “conceptual background”, see Adrien Gombeaud, “‘Une forme très simple finit toujours par apparaître’. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo,” Positif, 505 (2003), 33-37; and Huh Moonyung, “Interview,” op.cit., 89: “I doubt that the film can stand on its own if I give up formal consistency and the intensity in the form.”
  • 22See Sylvain Coumoul, “Vers l’invisibilité,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 590 (2004), 32-34.
  • 23See Vincent Malausa, “Une méthode Hong Sang-soo,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 682 (2012), 16-18. The actor Jun-sang Yu thus evokes the shooting of a scene from The Day He Arrives (2011): “There is this sequence where the four of us are around the table, talking about chance: we must have done more than sixty takes! At each new take, Hong would call us and tell us on the monitor everything that was wrong: you had to move the glass in one way and not another, make such and such a gesture, such and such a movement, everything was minuted... It was so rigorous that after thirty takes we found ourselves in an almost second-rate state.” However, Hong Sang-soo now estimates that he does an average of seven takes for a sequence. He also frequently shows the takes to the actors on a monitor so that he can better direct them for the next take.
  • 24See Adrien Gombeaud and Hubert Niogret, “‘J’essaie d’accueillir ce qui vient vers moi’,” art. cit., 35-38: “I have a realistic view of the decor, and I don't want to embellish it with things that might distract the viewer’s attention. When I decide on a camera angle, I already imagine how the spectators will see the action. I know they will see this and not that. What is around the character affects the viewer. So I try to control everything around them as much as possible. But I can guess what will catch the viewer’s attention.” And Adrien Gombeaud, “‘Une forme très simple finit toujours par apparaître’,” art. cit., 33-37: “I have to accept that I don’t control everything, and I have to be able to rely on the knowledge and skills of others. So far, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by very competent technicians. This allows me to not worry too much about this aspect, to focus on things that are more important to me. (...) It’s only the choice of shooting angles that I can’t delegate. I compose almost 99% of the shots.” If the shots are composed by Hong Sang-soo, it is also he who decides on the camera movements, panning or zooming. However, it is important to note the importance of the relationship to the present and of an intuitive dimension. In order to be able to decide on the movements at the very moment of shooting, Hong Sang-soo has set up a code between him and his cameraman: he stands behind him and touches his body to determine the movement to be made. A press on the upper back causes a zoom in; on the lower back, a zoom out; a press on the left side, a left pan; on the right side, a right pan.
  • 25Joachim Lepastier evokes the “premeditated chance” in his review of The Day He Arrives, “Les sentiments à la trace,” Cahiers du Cinéma, (678) 2012, 50-51.
  • 26Florence Maillard, “Le jeu de l’oie,” Cahiers du Cinéma, (665) 2011, 40. In his review of Our Sunhi, Jean-Sébastien Chauvin evokes the concentration of the story around a few places, which he links to an absence of real chance: “And, as in a play, everyone at the end is brought together in the same place (...) by a strange configuration of destiny. But deep down, no one crosses paths by chance; it is just the narrowness of the universe described that inevitably pushes the characters to come together.” Cited in “Soleil d’automne,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 702 (2014), 46-47.
  • 27Charles Tesson, “Le désir au quotidien. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo,” art. cit., 55-56.
  • 28“I do calculate, but a decision is made by the intuition. It is easy to calculate once the structure is set. It’s the intuition that decided where to draw the line.” Cited in Huh Moonyung, “Interview,” op. cit., 59. Jean-Charles Villata evokes from Hill of Freedom (2014) a “bias of chance” in Hong Sang-soo, wondering whether the editing is more or less voluntary or “decidedly random” (“La vie est faite de morceaux qui ne se joignent pas,” Trafic, 96, winter 2015, 38-40).
  • 29Adrien Gombeaud, “‘Une forme très simple finit toujours par apparaître’,” art. cit., 33-37.
  • 30See also this statement in which Hong Sang-soo evokes the relationship between his creative process and infinite possibilities (an idea that can be linked to that of indeterminacy): “It is the process that allows me to make films. By working like that, you get to infinite possibilities. (...) All things are possible, everything depends on what comes to me every day, on what I believe on the morning of the shoot. Every morning I check my ideas and I never say to myself “is it going to have that effect?” I just think, “does this sound right, does this feel right to you?” I have 20 or 30 ideas that come to me; I don't know where they come from or why, and I keep five.” Cited in Vincent Malausa, “De jour en jour. Entretien avec Hong Sang-soo,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 734 (2017), 35.
  • 31In addition to the examples cited above, and to emphasize that everything remains open until the end, we can mention here that the end of Right Now, Wrong Then, showing Heejung coming out of a movie theatre alone, was rewritten after a snowfall. It was originally the male character, Cheonsoo, who was supposed to come out of the movie theatre and walk away. If there was a practical part to this choice – the importance of the snowfall would have made a connection problematic, as little time was supposed to have elapsed between Cheonsoo’s entry and exit from the cinema – it did respond to an intuition and accentuated a difference between the two parts of the film, the first ending on Cheonsoo and the second on Heejung. It should also be noted that it was originally planned that The Day After was to end when Areum returned home: the sequence of the reunion between Areum and Bangwon, which was a determining factor in the structure, was not planned and could be added because the crew still had one day left to shoot.
  • 32Adrien Gombeaud, “‘Une forme très simple finit toujours par apparaître’,” art. cit., 33-37.
  • 33Julien Gester, “Hong Sang-soo : « Cela pourrait me ressembler, mais c’est une illusion »,” Libération, 16 February 2016. The wish that the actors be like children was formulated during the master class given by Hong Sang-soo in Brussels (at the Korean Cultural Centre) on 19 January 2018, led by Tom Paulus.

This text was originally published as “La méthode Hong Sang-soo. Ou comment tourner un film en quelques jours,” débordements, 6 March 2018.


Image (1) from Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da [Right Now, Wrong Then] (Hong Sang-soo, 2015)

Image (2) from Haebyeonui yeoin [Woman on the Beach] (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)

Image (3) from Da-reun na-ra-e-seo [In Another Country] (Hong Sang-soo, 2013)

Image (4), (10) and (11) from Claire’s Camera (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

Image (5) from Jal al-ji-do mot-ha-myeon-seo [Like You Know it All] (Hong Sang-soo, 2009)

Images (6) and (7) from U ri Sunhi [Our Shunhi] (Hong Sang-soo, 2013)

Image (8) from Ok-hui-ui yeonghwa [Oki's Movie] (Hong Sang-soo, 2010)

Photo (9) of the shooting of Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja [On the Beach at Night Alone] (Hong Sang-soo, 2017) by Mark Peranson

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.