“I don’t think you really understood the film.”
Yong-sil in Tale of Cinema (2005)
You wouldn’t want to hang out with Hong Sang-soo. So cringe-making is the Korean director’s acuity about social relations – the petty vexations, vanities, and evasions that constitute most so-called alliances – that one can only infer that he spends much of his time noting others’ foibles for use in his films. Hong never exempts himself from this inquisition; indeed, his seven features can be read, if reductively, as a project of auto-excoriation. His work teems with Hong look-alikes, alter egos, and surrogates, most of them self-absorbed, obtuse, feckless, forever doing the wrong thing: insisting on paying a host for a home-cooked meal; crying out the name of another woman in the middle of sex; drunkenly demanding a blowjob from a long-abandoned girlfriend; upbraiding or abusing servicepeople; borrowing money from a grieving acquaintance at a hospital ; ignoring the reluctance, discomfort, or pain of the women they fuck. “Life is a challenge,” says Sun-young, a married woman being pursued by Kyung-soo, an actor, in the second half of On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002). “What ?” obliviously replies the distracted Hong proxy, who is determined to bed her. “Do you like my moves?” he inquires once he is thrusting inside her; and when he later suffers a bout of impotence, he blithely asks, “Shall we die together cleanly without having sex?” (a proposal that gets restated by the callow male in the film-within-the- film in Hong’s Tale of Cinema). Kyung-soo may have memorized as a mantra a line tossed at him earlier in the film – “Even though it’s difficult to be a human being, let’s not turn into monsters” – but, like many of Hong’s men, he doesn’t realize that his heedlessness has become its own kind of indignity.
Standing apart from the clamor of current Korean cinema, with its obsessed vengeance seekers, live-octopus eaters, and river-dwelling mutants, forty-six-year-old Hong Sang-soo has secured his international reputation over the past decade with a septet of muted, structurally complex films – elliptical, exacting work that puts him more in the company of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, and Tsai Ming-liang. Though his visual style is less distinctive than any of theirs – reticent and functional, if not self-effacing, its long takes in the service of naturalism rather than formal design, its proximate but observational camera achieving a simultaneous intimacy and dispassion – Hong’s aesthetic is no less precise, particularly in the intricacy of his narratives.
Hong’s ‘tales of cinema’ are often bifurcated, with each half reflecting or counterpointing the other, as in his early masterpiece, The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), which presents one story, about a young woman on vacation in the eponymous setting; then another, about a professor taking a trip to the same place; and then, in a cubist coup, reveals them as simultaneous and interconnected. The second telling returns to sites, objects, and incidents from the first to cast them in a different light, fill in gaps in our knowledge, or open new mysteries. Reiteration becomes reversal in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), the most complicated instance of Hong’s doubling. Its halves, each divided into chapters, are titled with terms of contingency – ‘Perhaps Accident’ and ‘Perhaps Intention’ – as if to underscore a lack of established veracity. Commonly interpreted as a ‘he said, she said’ account of a love affair in which parallel but contradictory versions of the same events leave the audience uncertain as to which variation is the correct one, Virgin was shot in black-and-white, Hong said, “to better enableviewers to distinguish the differences” between the repeated “identical” scenes. (He sees color as a distraction.) That a scholar recently mapped out Virgin’s ‘deceptive design’ in a detailed three-page grid to argue that the film is actually more linear and synchronous than previously thought only confirms how confounding Hong’s narrative fragmentation can prove.
More than most, Hong’s films command attentiveness. Shots, motifs, objects, dialogue, and events return, often transmogrified in their second appearances – a dropped fork becomes a spoon, napkins replace chopsticks. Seemingly unimportant figures – for example, in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, a chef walking across a parking lot, diminished to insignificance by an overhead shot, or, in Woman on the Beach (2006), a pair of ‘extras’ power-walking down the right side of the frame – 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. Watching the second half of Virgin, one mentally scrambles to reconstruct the ‘unstudied’ groupings of the first, as the virgin and her two controlling suitors seem to replay their fraught exchanges in reconfigured formations, and it is not always easy to recall if or how they differ. (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.)
The impetus for Hong’s binary structures – his trademark, despite similar doublings in other recent Asian films (e.g., Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006); Jia’s Still Life (2006)) – has been variously construed as a manifestation of the divided being of Korea, as mere narrative play, or as a modernist strategy, inherited from Resnais and Antonioni, with its attendant arsenal of themes: time and memory, and the fallibility of the latter; the elusiveness of truth, the flux of meaning, and the unknowability of others; and the seepage between life and art. Alas, none of these explanations appears to fit Hong, who wears his seriousness lightly. Epistemology and politics seem foreign to his fixed, restricted world of actors, artists, and professors, experts at passive aggression as they tend to their banked resentments, nursed grudges, and hidden hurts. Politics, if broached at all, is mentioned jokingly (think of the publisher who is preparing a novel about Marx in Hong’s first film, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996)), or obliquely (Kyung-soo refers to The Making of a Radical by American socialist activist Scott Nearing as a life-changing text in Turning Gate but uses it merely as a prop to pursue Sun-young). Similarly, the false cues and ruses of Hong’s storytelling seem less to signify anything so profound as the dissolution of truth and identity than simply to assert an aesthetic signature: just as Godard conceives in terms of collage, Hong arranges by reiteration.
Hong’s tightly battened structures belie his free approach to directing actors. The cast improvised most of the dialogue in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. Turning Gate never had a finished script, only a treatment, which was withheld from the actors before shooting began. They ‘fell into the film’ without any knowledge of the plot or characters, and received their lines for the day’s work each morning. The unnerving realism of Hong’s many scenes of inebriation – his flailing, ineffectual characters often succumb to sluices of booze – is reportedly won by occasionally getting his actors sloshed for the shoot. (Jae-hoon, in Virgin, says he used to drink five bottles of soju and three of whiskey at atime, to which Soo-jung pragmatically responds, “How about I be your girlfriend only when you’re drunk?”) The precision of performance in Hong’s films – copious dialogue impeccably delivered by flush-faced tipplers in riskily unedited takes – is therefore all the more astonishing.
As much as Hong’s titles invoke Cheever, Aragon, Duchamp, and Renoir, and his films quote Rimbaud or are influenced by Ozu, Murnau, and Bresson, he seems uninterested in homage. Hong was initially inspired by Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and reveres the master’s Notes on the Cinematograph (1975), a Pascalian collection of aphorisms about filmmaking. But almost everything in Hong’s style contravenes Bresson’s edicts in that little book, from his fondness for establishing shots to his extensive use of nondiegetic music, which is strikingly insipid, all advert perk and tinkle on simulated calliopes, marimbas, or squeeze boxes. (The midpoint transition from the film-within-the-film to the film ‘proper’ in Tale of Cinema is signaled by a shift in the music – an inappropriately bouncy tune that seems to mock the suicidal despair of the boy as he cries, “Mom ! Mom !” – from nondiegetic to diegetic status.) Indeed, if Hong shares an affinity with any director, it is Buñuel, whose spirit is apparent in the small, quietly ominous mystery of the two men who own a bag factory in Turning Gate; in the surreal funeral in Pig, interpolated into the narrative without signal or segue; and especially in the ceaseless succession of ‘obscure objects of desire’ and the men who obsess over them, purblind in their pointless amour. (Sex is often drunken and fumbling, the women imploring their partners not to touch their hair, not to hurt them so much, to hurry, to stop.) Breton’s edict that “events will not tolerate deferment” does not obtain in Hong, for whom waiting and delay are controlling motifs; in the perpetual state of déjà vu generated by his reiterated structures, Hong’s characters are forced to abide, lay over, hang fire, by clients, lovers, hookers, waiters, and airline clerks, and to stifle their unhappiness at the tarry. (Soo-jung’s suspension in a stalled cable car in Virgin offers a representative metaphor for the arrested state of many of Hong’s characters, as does the little one-way walk in the snow at the beginning of Woman Is the Future of Man (2004).)
Hong’s emphasis on time, memory, and deferred desire has led to the inevitable comparison to Wong Kar Wai, whose most recent films, with their slurred montage, luxe visual design, and aura of cloistered romanticism are, stylistically, pretty much the opposite of Hong’s. The directors’ names may rhyme, but their films don’t. One need only compare the temporal scheme of Woman Is the Future of Man, with its carefully delineated summer/past-winter/present dichotomy, and the swoony spiraling of time in In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004) to note their differences. In Wong, longing is a function of absence. Mood, for instance, takes place in a setting that has vanished, and it is structured around a love affair between characters we hear but never really see; many of its most anticipated events are left incomplete or off-screen, in the realm of the imagined, desired, or divined. (In this and other ways, the film is a distant relative of Marguerite Duras’s India Song (1975).) Time past is time lost, regained only through the imagining of an unattainable place and an elusive love. In contrast to Wong’s aching emphasis on loss, yearning, and regret, the atmosphere in Hong, even when his films twist and rewind time, is more lucid than Proustian.
Hong’s is a cinema of missed connections (Kyung- soo and his friend take a ferry to the eponymous temple in Turning Gate but turn back before seeing it, convinced there’s “not much there”), of inclement weather (off-season and winter predominate, and Gate begins and ends in driving rain), of self-deluding conversation. Frequently compared to Eric Rohmer because his ineffectual characters seem to talk more than act, deceive themselves and others, misinterpret motives and events, and take various psychological byways to defer their futures, Hong has built a distinctive world for his inadequate men and resilient, barely enduring women. His keen attention to setting – a series of unremarkable bars and restaurants (as in Ozu, his favorite director), anonymous hotel rooms with slithery chenille bedspreads and fake everything, unlovely streets, deserted alleys, and ironically deployed tourist sites (Kangwon Province, the Turning Gate temple, Shinduri Beach) – accentuates the feel of drift and dislocation.
For critics who complain that by the time of Woman Is the Future of Man Hong had created a cul-de-sac for himself, his repetitions having become in themselves repetitive, Hong’s latest films, Tale of Cinema and Woman on the Beach, with their insiderish world of filmmakers and routine reliance on the romantic triangle, might confirm a sense of aesthetic stall. But much is new in both films, particularly the radical resurrection of a shot long abjured by contemporary directors. Not only does Tale introduce Hong’s first use of voice-over, typi- cally viewed as a lazy device – telling, not showing, and all that – but there is also an insistent reliance on the zoom, similarly thought slovenly. On the moral or ethical continuum for shots, the zoom stands opposite to the fixed, long (preferably distant) take, which has been assigned qualities of integrity, even purity, in its noninterventionist, ‘whole’ recording of reality. The zoom, an intrusive visual punctuation to emphasize emotion, direct attention, and isolate detail, is conversely assigned qualities of artificiality, expedience, and coercion. That Frederick Wiseman, avatar of observational documentary, employed zooms (e.g., in Basic Training (1971)), and Rossellini, conventionally described as the father of neorealism, built his late style around the use of the Pancinor zoom lens surely complicates this simplistic schema. But the zoom remains associated with slatternly ’70s cinema, so when, midway through Tale, it suddenly becomes apparent that the zoom-happy film we have been watching is the creation not of Hong (though, of course, it is) but of the ailing director who is a character in the film proper (i.e., the latter half of Tale), one initially assumes, with considerable relief, that the zoom was one of Hong’s sly indicators – along with some unsubtle performances and telenovela confrontations – that the first half was made by another (and lesser) director. Not so. In the second half, made by Hong in the style of Hong, the zoom reappears in no less obtrusive and clumsy form. Hong defenders have proffered unsatisfactory explanations for his use of the zoom, and the director has been vague about his motive for this startling departure from his usual staging in the long take, so the issue remains unresolved.
If the doublings in Tale of Cinema – the Marlboro Reds, Seoul Tower, eyeglasses store, Yong-sil’s name, etc. – seem a trifle obvious, the film accounts for the brazen repetition by emphasizing the suspicion of Dong-soo in the second half of Tale that his life story, which he divulged to the director of the film we see in the first half, was usurped for that script. Thus Hong appears to acknowledge his own penchant for lifting incidents from the lives of his actors and acquaintances to include in his films. In Hong’s latest, Woman on the Beach, which is something of a career summation, his self-reproach takes on a more mordant tone. Joong-rae, a film director who is the pivot not only between the film’s two romantic trian- gles but also between its two halves, is another of Hong’s hurtful jerks, a volatile narcissist and a classic master of the faintest praise: he compliments his production assistant’s girlfriend, Moon-sook, an aspiring songwriter, by saying, “You sing the way an average person would. I like the amateur feel of it.” Joong-rae may be widely recognized and admired, but when he outlines the idea for his new film – whose gluey title, About Miracles, signals its banality – the concept seems so precious, one wonders whether Hong means to undercut his character or whether Joong-rae’s chain-of-fate scenario involving a mysteriously ubiquitous Mozart tune and a mime is indeed meant to indicate his genius. (Most of Hong’s professional males are in some way second-rate, blocked, wanting.) In any case, Joong-rae, who appears to be one of Hong’s many stand-ins, also seems to test experience against its usefulness in art – something he makes apparent in the silly diagram he draws to explain his psychology to Moon-sook – and no doubt steals details from the lives of clueless acquaintances for use in his films. (Again Hong seems to mock himself, in that the diagram reflects the double-triangle narrative pattern of his cinema; it is as much formula as philosophy.)
Few can rival Hong for his portrayals of social awkwardness and embarrassment, of nurtured grievance, fueled by booze, erupting into accusation: the reunion of two school chums in Woman Is the Future of Man, for example, their drunken lunch roiling with resentment until it bursts into absurd allegation, that the one hugged the other’s wife ‘American style.’ Woman on the Beach, though acclaimed as Hong’s sunniest, funniest, most whimsical, generous, and accessible film, has some of the director’s crudest moments, in which characters don’t seem to care whether it is difficult being human or not – being monstrous is second nature.
The casual ease with which Moon-sook disparages and abandons her mate, openly inviting the seduction of Joong-rae, and the childish pleasure the two take in sending the pathetic, increasingly hysterical boyfriend the wrong way on the darkened beach are (exquisitely) painful to witness. Hong and his actors miss no note of abasement, need, and manipulation, every soju-assisted insight designed to sting and wither: “You’re different from your films,” Moon- sook tells Joong-rae. “You’re a Korean man.” She means: vain, insecure, controlling, parochial. “You’re reckless but not loathsome,” she assures him, which passes for flattery in Hong’s world.
Hong’s use of the zoom in Beach is more assured than in Tale of Cinema: a tight shot begins with only Joong-rae and Moon-sook in frame and then zooms out to reveal that the hapless boyfriend is also present, the effect neatly capturing the latter’s cruel exclusion by the duo, his ‘third wheel’ status. And though the film retains Hong ’s dual structure, with its inevitable reiterations – Moon-sook is alienated from her father in the first half ; the woman who becomes her romantic rival is alienated from her mother in the second ; and so on – there are enough felicities and mysteries to save it from Tale’s schematism. Joong-rae’s weeping, prostrate prayer before three bare trees complicates our sense of his character, and Moon-sook, at once humiliating and humiliated, is one of Hong’s most complex women. (Issues of trust and faith are important to the women in the film but are typically misunderstood by the men.) Beach, however, tilts dangerously toward literalism. A motif involving a white dog is both redundant and blatant, a needless restatement of the theme of abandonment. An earlier, more ambiguous Hong would have left uncertain the identity of the man who terrorizes Joong-rae and Moon-sook with his motorbike; an egregious insert reveals what we have already guessed. And Joong-rae’s mishap with an unused muscle that has him hobbling through the last part of the film suggests the kind of short-hand lesser artists resort to: physical disability as metaphor for psychic infirmity. Like Yong-sil in Tale of Cinema, Hong seems unsure that we can really understand the film.
Originally published in Artforum Vol. XLV No. 10, Summer 2007.