s a burgeoning filmgoer, I once idealized the perfect film as a completed jigsaw puzzle, where every piece fit, ripe for savoring. But there was a turning point where looseness became a virtue, rigidity became a vice, and holistic perfection was an oxymoron. Suddenly, it was possible to imagine a L’age D’or without its faux-documentary facade, an Eraserhead without gurgling chickens, a Mouchette without bumper cars, meaning without any sign of joy. There is a reluctant moment akin to pubescence in auteurist cinephilia, when every glance, every word, every color becomes a conscious choice, rather than an inevitable constituent. This is why the term “auteur theory” has always struck me as overly hesitant: how can the fruit of quantifiable decision-making be theoretical?
Emotionally naked but formally precise, emerging Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo embodies choice in the nature of his recurring structure: one film, followed by another. One could be decisive; three could be broadly encompassing. Two parts suggest confusion, indecision, a dual adherence to warring values. But Hong’s style, ever the counterbalance to inner frenzy, is deceptively simple. His camera is unobtrusive, at once in service of the narrative and peripheral goings-on. By default, he chooses the master-shot because coverage would be superfluous to his purposes. A rare insert of a fruit or flower is only there, as in the silent-era serials of Louis Feuillade, to show, rather than emphasize. Superficially, then, Hong milks film grammar for old-school functionality, shying from expressionism. But his camerawork is imbued with subjective curiosity, book-ending ostensibly narrative-driven scenes with suggestive pans that situate the narrative in a larger world, but also provide reflective moments for character and viewer alike. The camera often takes on the qualities of an observer, trying to keep his mind on story and character but suddenly being struck by the sight of a vagabond, or a foul smell in the air. Andre Bazin once regarded world-class great Jean Renoir as possessing the “eye of god,” positing the filmmaker as an ideal observer, seeing a story with absolute clarity, as opposed to, say, passion. Hong also avoids stylistic virtuosity for its own sake—his camera is certainly in that ineffable “right place”—but in contrast, his camera meanders and lingers on the eccentric, and one pan following a curious canine in Woman Is the Future of Man suggests “eye of dog” as a more fitting tag.
Woman Is the Future of Man is, to date, the only Hong feature commercially released in the U.S. Films such as Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and The Power of Kangwon Province are slowly trickling onto R1 DVD, but true aficionados will have to consult eBay and import vendors. Upon its release, Woman was met with faint praise and just under $12,000 in box office receipts. Compare this paltry reception with that of recent works by fellow members of South Korea’s new wave: Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron and Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (still in domestic release) have pocketed approximately $240,000 and $80,000 in the U.S. I don’t intend to soil the names of Hong’s countrymen—Park is a talent, and his Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a great film—but to examine why Hong is commercially unviable to stateside audiences, if not for lack of remarkable skill. Is it the absence of a clear Western antecedent? Tarantino christened Park at Cannes, but meanwhile the American filmmaker most often mentioned alongside Hong is Woody Allen, and Hong’s cinema most resembles late-‘70s Allen without the one-liners, which to some Woody fans would be like a cheese sandwich with no cheese. Having studied at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and cited influences like Robert Bresson and Eric Rohmer in interviews, Hong’s collective works envision modern South Korea through a sensibility weaned on Gallic film culture. Last year’s Tale of Cinema landed Hong his first Cahiers du Cinema top ten spot, signaling that it may soon be time for stateside film nerds to wake up and smell the international recognition. Hong has made six rarely seen features made over a nine-year span, and along the way a bevy of small but exquisitely profound tendencies have accrued; here are some of them.
The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well
I should preface some thoughts on Hong’s debut 1996 feature, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, by noting that the region-free disc labeled Marvel Entertainment’s English subtitling job is staggeringly incompetent (sample dialogue exchange, selected at random: Furious Sex Worker: “What the heck is going on?”; Her Indignant John: “Condom was missed!”; FSW: “Are you going to use all water?”), rendering the film’s already labyrinth plot just that much closer to incomprehensible. From a screenplay by Koo Hyo-seo—whose IMDB page is so conspicuously sparse I’m half-convinced it’s a pseudonym, and who is apparently irrelevant considering much of the film’s dialogue is rumored to have been improvised—comes a very Hong-like movie, which is doubly accomplished considering it’s clearly edited on a cutting board as opposed to a computer program, and shot lengths are cut to minimally register, as opposed to linger. Belligerent novelist Hyo-sub (Kim Yui-seong), his two lovers Min-jae (Cho Eun-sook) and Po-Kyong (Lee Eung-kyung), and Po-Kyong’s husband Dong-woo (Park Jin-seong) are allotted 30 minutes a piece in a world distinguished by, among other things, Hong’s sole use to date of a moving camera.
Whimsical spite resonates throughout, as Hong piles on the odd, bitter yet deeply quotidian details: a shoe salesman who abruptly raises and lowers his hand behind Min-jae; a movie patron who flails wildly upon being bumped into; a hotel bed-stain that proves maddeningly irremovable. The film only builds in cynicism, constructing a basic distrust of people through a series of changes in heart—Dong-woo is neurotic enough to hesitate before vomiting, Hyo-sub is insecure enough to ask for a completed manuscript back after it’s already been filed, and his college buddy is bellicose enough to gently pull Hyo-sub out of a fight before abruptly kicking his ass—and climaxes in a ritual that some have read as dream, others as suicide, and yours truly as, um, utterly baffling after two viewings. All four characters are somewhat dislikeable, not least the central stud Hyo-sub, who impulsively borrows money and offers a hug and cheap pathos—“I’ll have more money some day…”—as compensation. Sadly, Hong’s visual sense is strictly embryonic; the film’s most striking image is of Min-jae recording Hentai moans, if only because the flickering box of animated porn provides real-time dissonance with her boss’s clichéd pleas of “Once more, with feeling!”
The Power of Kangwon Province
In 1998’s The Power of Kangwon Province, Hong’s first film made from one of his own screenplays, he starts to employ longer takes and wider shots, and the ends largely justify the means. The results are less dramatically and philosophically rich than Hong’s later work, and the rundown could be mistaken for any other fest-filler riding on the once-popular wave of films about Coincidence and Chance: peripatetic girl Ji-sook (Oh Yun-hong) and aspiring professor Sang-kwon (Baek Jong-hak) undergo adulterous adventures—each gets their own hour-long segment—sometimes intersecting and finally unveiling a connection. On the fringes of each character’s experience is an ill-advised murder mystery irrelevant to the main storyline(s) other than to reintroduce ridiculously unassertive questions like: who was the victim? Who was the killer? What happened? One suspects the Hong of recent years would lend sharper definition to this skeletal tangent.
Still, there’s a beauty to the way Hong packs a slew of actors in the frame and lets us have an awareness none of the characters get, which creates additional ambiguities of its own. In one such shot, buddies Mi-sun (Im Sun-young) and Eunk-young (Park Hyun-young) discuss the resemblance of an unnamed policeman (Kim Yoo-suk) to an old teacher, and Ji-sook is resting in the seat across after a night of passionate love-making with the same. We’re not sure whether Ji-sook is actually sleeping or just closing her eyes, trying to dodge the heat. And nobody directs inebriation like Hong. According to James Quandt, the director has a habit of getting his stars liberally smashed before a shoot, and rarely is this factoid more frightening to ponder than in a scene featuring Ji-sook and her paramour alone in a hotel room. He pulls her, pushes her down on the bed, she looks dead, her arms flail, she slaps him, laughs, gets up and hunches over slightly; she’s less your average lampshade-wearing, Elisabeth Shue-befriending archetype than the fuzzy figure in last Friday morning’s hangover-induced haze of recollections. As if rape and unconsciousness weren’t enough to mull over, the same shot sees her lover proceed to crawl across the balcony rails like an existential Curious George, in a bit of stunt-work that would be quite impressive if it weren’t so suggestive and haunting.
Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors
No Hong concept strikes the ear so immediately as an exercise in pure direction than that of 2000’s Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, shot in B&W, in which the same courtship is depicted twice, with no radical variations in tone or content, from the perspectives of virgin Soo-jung (Lee Eun-ju) and bachelor Jae-hoon (Jeong Bo-seok). Herein lies a challenge to the viewer: why should we see Jae-hoon’s courtship of Soo-jung twice if the general outline—Soo-jung is apprehensive, and Jae-hoon is attracted to her apprehension—remains the same? But Hong works through the material to explore the ways that men and women reconstruct experiences. It’s finally apparent that Soo-jung’s recollections traffic in anxious claustrophobia, and Jae-hoon’s episode impresses the perspective of someone dreamy to the point of delusion. Hong sustains these differences but imbues them with roughly the same degree of meticulous nuance. If not Hong’s strongest film overall, it’s most incumbent on his direction, with a multitude of broadly similar moments only given meaning by their articulation.
The structure of the film—14 chapters, seven per character—invites near-infinite opportunities for careful comparison between chapters from parts we’ll call A and B, and even a single shot selected from each at random—say, the first shots of chapters 3 and 10, i.e., the third chapters of each segment—yields astounding levels of formal complexity. Each shows the respective teller of each segment (Jae-hoon in A, Soo-jung in B) talking to, and evidently annoyed with, ornery filmmaker Young-soo (Mun Seong-kun), in a space split into two halves by the vertical line of the corner of a building; the “other” (Soo-jung in A, Jae-hoon in B) eventually enters each space. But in A, the building is outside, meaning that the walls curving away from the center lead the viewer to an open cityscape, whereas in B it’s an interior shot, with the walls curving towards the camera as the viewer moves left or right of the center. In both shots, we can’t see Jae-hoon’s or Soo-jung’s facial reactions to Young-soo, but for profoundly different reasons: Jae-hoon nervously looks at the ground when Young-soo pesters him about a borrowed camera, whereas in the later shot Young-soo impetuously kisses Soo-jung, obscuring her face from view. And when Soo-jung enters Jae-hoon’s shot, she relieves tension; when he enters hers, he clutters the frame, exacerbating an already tangible awkwardness. The variations are consistent in nature: Soo-jung’s world opens up, and Soo-jung’s encroaches upon her. Phallic, no?
The turning gate in 2002’s Turning Gate is a mythical-icon-turned-tourist-landmark, which doesn’t itself turn, but imposes fear upon those too reluctant to pass by it, and makes them head back home. Fledgling actor Kyung-soo (Kim Sang-kyung) yawns the myth off upon hearing it from buddy Sung-woo (Kim Hak-sun) on a ferry boat to the gate. But as a narrative pattern develops, the tale is evidently no joke: Kyung-soo romances needy dance instructor Myung-suk (Ye Ji-won), retreats, romances sheltered housewife Sun-young (Chu Sang-mi), and finally retreats. Indeed, the film tackles how we absorb art and experience, and how both are bound to resurface so long as we contemplate them; by the film’s end, whether we consider Kyung-soo a progressively coarse asshole or a sympathetically calloused loser-in-love depends on whether we blame the man, or his colorful history. Hong again utilizes the chapter structure of Virgin, this time foretelling what’s to come with seemingly straightforward summaries. However, when a chapter is titled e.g., “Kyung-soo has a quarrel with a director,” the quarrel in question begins and ends amicably, and the suggestion that “Kyung-soo is reminded of the Turning Gate’s snake” is so decidedly psychological that a search for the precise moment the snake pops into Kyung-soo’s head would yield at least three matches within. The story continually resists encapsulation, and one senses that’s Hong’s perverse reason for supplying it. Only such a blatantly inadequate narrative framework could draw complete attention to the film’s nuanced, elegant style.
Working again in color, Hong concentrates his energy on palpable compositions that interact with our perceptions of the drama. Naturalistic as Turning Gate may seem, Hong’s methods are systematic: the more emotional turmoil bound to spill over, the more Hong inhibits identification. At the height of Myung-suk’s depression and Kyung-soo’s vendetta against her, he offers her a slight goodbye without even a hug, and quickly heads for the bus. The scene is shot from behind Myung-suk, so even as we’re readily prepared for her to freak out, we aren’t allowed to witness it; the scene derives high emotional tension from the power of assumption. Additionally, with Turning Gate Hong starts to find ways to work conventions into his work and use his aesthetic to subvert them—see Kyung-soo chatting with a little girl of Dakota Fanning-esque precocity only for her to be injured in excruciating detail, one shot later; or Kyung-soo and Sung-woo chatting about a college girl in the distance, followed by a reaction shot of her looking back, possibly interested, mostly trying to appear distracted; we never see her again. In a lesser film, the little girl would become a companion, and the college girl a conversation, if not a girlfriend. Hong flirts with convention, and then crushes it with the suddenness of life.
Woman Is the Future of Man
2004’s Woman Is the Future of Man is often dismissed as a minor work, perhaps for its lack of structural boldness. All of Hong’s features possess a rickety, wayward tone, but Woman comes closest to subsiding into something impenetrably ramshackle. Hong cuts the movie into four slices rather than his usual two; its first and second halves could indeed be Hong featurettes by their lonesome, replete with the standard bipartite organization. The first two parts describe what may have occurred between two ideationally opposed, but emotionally similar college buddies, and the girl of their then-affections. Again, they inhabit the perpetually dispiriting milieu of indie filmmaking in South Korea: one, Mun-ho (Yu Ji-tae), aspires to teach at his alma mater, and the other, Hun-soo (Kim Tae-woo), dreams of buckling down and finally making a film. Both are, per usual, angry drunks, but Hun-soo, perhaps a stand-in for Hong himself, is passive aggressive whereas Mun-ho is merely aggressive, and Hun-soo’s unstable personality goes a long way in distinguishing Hong’s view of the quixotic, art-hungry filmmaker from his more realistic, pedagogical counterpart. Directing art films in South Korea does not lead to a luxurious, emotionally reliable lifestyle, we gather, and it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to infer that Hong intended Hun-soo’s downtrodden persona as an implicit critique of the debilitation done by his own financial backers. The larger point of the film, however, is that both Mun-ho and Hun-soo are miserable failures, and those critics who’ve slammed the film on the basis that both men’s lives are so mundanely depressing fail to understand that their sameness merely underscores how isolated they are from each other. Failure is the lifeboat they both frantically board to prevent acknowledging they have so little in common.
Even with its relatively slack critical reception, it’s no surprise Woman Is the Future of Man is Hong’s only work to land U.S. distribution. With its pitiless lambasting of chauvinistic stupidity, it could easily be made to fit the standard Ugly American Comedy format, with some of Hong’s artier touches siphoned out. In a signature long take, Hun-soo shares memories of taking Sun-hwa (Seong Hyeon-a) out for chicken and liquor, and Mun-ho blasts him for leaving her a wreck, ensuring that he’d only distress her. Sun-hwa walks in, bemoans the smell of chicken, and is beaming with delight at Hun-soo’s presence, refuting the claims of both men. It’s reminiscent of nothing more obscure than Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels trading jabs over Lauren Holly in Dumb and Dumber, with the object of affection acting as mediator and audience surrogate.
Self-awareness, then, is what sets Hong’s men apart. In a metaphor for his non-committal nature, Hun-soo trudges through the snow only to trudge backwards with his feet facing forward—making his mark and then erasing it. Such lack of gusto is mirrored in the way he starts to leave Sun-hwa, first huffing away and refusing to acknowledge her presence, then stopping on the sidewalk and calling out for her to recognize his pain and humanity. Mun-ho also reveals his nature through a barrier of sarcasm: when Sun-hwa asks him about a bag of rocks in his apartment, he claims to use it as a punching bag, punches it, recoils from the pain (and in doing so shows his makeshift lie), and then jokingly continues to punch it, using a comic awareness of the lie to lend balance to over-determined masculinity. When Mun-ho later hits on one of his nubile students turned on by his honesty, the ideal thing to do would be to casually ask for a blowjob, if only to know he wields the power; but when he does, he discovers it’s not enough. His problem is an overabundance of will, and Hun-soo’s is one of pain; it’s telling that they ultimately seem equally damaging, and necessary to temper with humor.
Here, we see Hong beginning to find a new use for his use of pans that orient his characters in a space. One only need witness Peyton Reed’s otherwise fine The Break-Up to sample how Hollywood’s frequent abuse of the establishing shot can lapse into laughable self-parody: five or six scenes at Jennifer Aniston’s Hip Chicago Art Gallery all begin with an identical external shot of busy patrons scrambling past each other, because evidently otherwise we would all forget it was Popular and Trendy and also Urban. (Why is this so egregious, you ask? Imagine a catchy pop tune featuring a chorus repeated three times with zero variation in vocal inflection.) Whereas in Woman Is the Future of Man, when we see a looming skyscraper introduce a scene in which Mun-ho takes Sun-hwa to his swanky pad—ostensibly a detail just as standard-issue and meaningless as its U.S. counterpart—Hong pauses and lingers, then pans over to the hallway, which the two then proceed to traverse. The effect isn’t merely familiarizing us with their presence, but also with their absence, and it’s ghostly.
Tale of Cinema
2005’s Tale of Cinema, Hong’s latest film, represented a breakthrough for yours truly, not least because it’s so self-reflexive as to suggest a New Hong (Tale) to set apart from Transitional Hong (Virgin, Turning, Woman) and Old Hong (Day, Power). The set-up is typical Hong: our hero is an impulsive, introspective loner named Sang-won (Lee Ki-woo) who runs into a girl from his past, Young-shil (Uhm Ji-won). Their attempts at sex or even banal communication are achingly disharmonious; he feigns aggressiveness during intercourse and merely hurts her, and her insistence on physical closeness is tempered when she questions his similar insistence. They’re magnetically drawn to each other, but tragically incompatible. One failed attempt at a romantic suicide pact later, Sang-won takes a stab at redemption, but his cathartic moment, which involves running out onto the roof of his family’s apartment and wailing to his mother, is hilariously trite—perhaps not because he actually wants her, but because he (and the viewer) has seen something similar in an avant-garde play. As usual, Hong sympathizes with Sang-won’s desperation, but simply pities his second-hand shot at a breakthrough.
At this point, Hong’s film undergoes the standard mid-point shift, and it’s genuinely surprising enough that the spoiler-wary should skip to the last paragraph right about now. The first act is a film-within-a-film, the second follows Dong-soo (Turning Gate’s Kim Sang-kyung), who exits the film and misapplies its lessons to his life, and the third act is, implicitly, life, as we have just watched one protagonist watch another, and it’s now our turn to falsely idealize reality according to our identification with fictional characters. Normally, a half deigned more naturalistic would comment on any excessive artifice in a half-deigned fictional; but in fact, something like the opposite occurs here, a sign of Hong’s ever-probing insight into human nature. Dong-soo is an absurd perfectionist; he calls the actress his “ideal” and interprets the suicide pact as a romantic tryst rather than the last resort that is depicted in the film. His struggle is one weaned on artifice whereas the film character’s problems are more “pure” by virtue of being uninflected. Thus, Hong’s film becomes a study of the perils of misinterpretation; one of his protagonists is nobly isolated—breaking out of that isolation, briefly, by mimicking art—and the other protagonist cribs from that isolation and shoehorns it into his own sexual and artistic crises as a filmmaker manqué. Tale of Cinema is a veritable house of mirrors, truths and fictions, but it’s more concerned with the emotional confusion of the spectator than any ambiguous relationship between films and real life. For Hong, veracity in art is a given; the task of accepting that veracity and doing something with it is what’s daunting.
Hong has recently begun production on a new feature, tentatively titled Woman on the Beach and scheduled to premiere at the usual slew of festivals this fall. A few months may mark the difference between a great auteur and an unconscionably evolved one, but as Hong might advise a protégée with girl trouble, do some homework before indulging.