Thursday, 24 April 2008
THE VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE BY HER BACHELORS (Hong Sang-soo, 2000)
NOTE: This post is longer than usual and also contains numerous spoilers.
Hong Sang-soo's third feature offers a culmination of his previous films and their thematic, narrative and stylistic concerns. The focus on male-female sexual relationships is pared down even further, as this is essentially the story of the consummation of a love affair between the virgin Soo-Jeong and her lover Jae-Hun. Narratively, it is the most extreme of Hong's formal experiments, presenting the story of this affair in two parallel sections, with many scenes being repeated with slight variations. Likewise, the long take style of the first two films is taken to a much greater extreme. The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well had an average shot length (ASL) of 24 seconds; The Power of Kangwon Province had an ASL of 33 seconds; here, the ASL is over 52 seconds. This is mostly due to an large increase in extremely long takes of 100 seconds or more: each of Hong's first films contained 9 such shots, while The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors has 22 of these prolonged takes. Furthermore, these takes tend to be of far less dramatic importance than in the earlier films, where they usually took place between lovers or at tense table conversations. In this film, Hong's minimal editing tends to serve his narrative experiment, as does the decision to shoot in black and white. The sparseness of editing and color allows Hong to position the viewer to concentrate on the variations he develops throughout the film's second half.
The narrative structure is alluded to in the film's international title (the Korean title is simply Oh! Soo-Jeong) and its reference to Marcel Duchamp's glass artwork "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" (1915-1923). Both pieces of art are divided into two, and this division is along gender lines. Both can certainly be interpreted as explorations of sexual desire, but the abstraction of both can also lead against interpretation and criticism all together. Watching Hong's films, there is a certain meaninglessness that comes across that especially separates him from fellow Korean director Lee Chang-Dong. This difference in sensibility is ultimately why I believe I prefer Lee's films to Hong's. The critic Huh Moonyung has written of Hong:
"His attitude of denial is radical. Even the most basic preconditions, like axioms in mathemathics, such as 'meaning is more valuable than meaninglessness,' 'all human beings are entitled to dignity' and 'life is superior to death,' are all denied in Hong's films. Hong is not a critic. In order to criticize, one must possess a value system as criteria for criticism, which Hong Sangsoo lacks." (Huh, 13)
In contrast, consider Lee Chang-Dong's remarks about cinema generally and how he approaches it:
"In the 90s, being serious kills the party because you make a fool of yourself by talking about things people already know but choose not to talk about. In the 80s, there was some merit in telling the truth. But by the 90s, truth was not appreciated. Here I am, still taking things seriously and trying to tell the truth. How irritating!" (Kim, 63)
"We're now in the age of post-meaning. Whether we like it or not, movies have become the dominant medium. Other mediums which deal with meaning have weakened, degenerated and lost their power over people. Maybe because I'm coming from the literary world, or I grew up that way, i tend to implant meaning into film. I suppose I'm trying to create as much meaning as possible and communicate with the audience through my films." (Kim, 75)
As a result, Hong's films tend to both invite analysis because of their complexity (by contrast, Lee's films seem deceptively simple) while discouraging interpretation into the film's ultimate meaning (Lee's narratives, on the other hand, tend to be packed with meaning and meant to be interpreted). That Hong is a favorite of formalist scholar David Bordwell should come as no surprise.
The narrative form of The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors can be plotted as follows:
"Day's Wait" (Jae-hun waits for Soo-jeong in hotel and talks to her on the phone, urging her to come)
-7 numbered sections
"Suspended Cable Car" (repeat of first scene but showing Soo-jeong) (Soo-jeong is suspended on a cable car overlooking Seoul)
-7 numbered sections
"Naught Shall Go Ill When You Find Your Mare" (epilogue: cable car begins to move; Soo-Jeong arrives at hotel and they make love; they wash the bloody sheet; the final shot (figure 1) has them in each other's arms as Jae-hun says, "I'll try to fix every fault I have for my life.")
It is tempting to view the two sections as almost-Rashomon like, in which we first get the male and then the female perspective on a relationship. However, this art cinema reading simplifies the film far too much. There are some examples when shots and scenes are repeated almost exactly (figure 2 and 3, taken from a party sequence that reappears in the second half), and others that are close resemblances taken from opposite angles (figures 4 and 5) (It should be noted that Hong apparently filmed in sequence, returning to original locations weeks later). However, just as often the variations are such that they are not simple perspective shifts. Bordwell thus argues that:
"(The film) doesn't supply any subjective motivation for the disparities. It isn't that Jae-hun remembers a moment in their affair in one way, while Soo-jeong remembers it differently. Indeed, we have no reason to believe that the flashbacks represent the characters' memories at all. The scenes are presented in crisply numbered sections, as if they were items in an objective outline, or scenes in parallel worlds. Framed by the present-time scenes, the variants carry out Hong's concern with a pattern that can't be reduced to a dramatic structure." (Huh, 26-27) (from Bordwell's essay "Beyond Asian Minimalism: Hong Sangsoo's Geometry Lesson" )
I find one variation particularly intriguing. In the first section, Jae-hun lures Soo-jeong into an alley by saying he has something funny to tell her, explaining that there is an old man who lives with a girl in the building. When they get into the alley, he says the old man anf the girl are not there and attempts to accost Soo-jeong (Figure 6). In the second half, the older film director, Yeong-soo, is walking with Soo-Jeong and passes an alley. He says to her that he has something funny to show her. The scene then cuts to them lying down in a room with Yeong-soo threatening to rape Soo-jeong (Figure 7). Is this Hong playing with a line of dialogue and location and then showing how the scene could play out differently in an opposite narrative universe? Or, are we to think back to the earlier line of dialogue from Jae-hun and believe that, however coincidental or fantastic, that both scenes may have occurred? As Hong has stated, "I welcome strange coincidences and think they are like a wedge driven into the frame of a banal and conventional mind." (Huh, 57)
The film's ending crystallizes the fascination and disturbance of Hong's work. There is something both optimistic and ridiculous about the couple's union, symbolized by the bloody sheet that they wash and that Jae-hun wants to take home with him. Hong's cinema has a certain obsession with purity that he acknowledges:
"I think I went through puberty clinging onto the ideals such as absolute truth, perfect world, absolute purity, etc. Everything I had encountered in life was automatically compared against an ideal value. I failed to comprehend things in life that couldn't be incorporated into that ideal system. So, my life became fraught with schizophrenia asking why reality cannot easily converge with these beautiful ideals. Only when I reached my 20s did I fortunately begin to see the falsehood behind those ideals and began to better appreciate life, that is, as it is. Characters in my movies reflect such experiences. Specific characters chase after cliched ideals, or even get chased by them, but I want my gaze of characters to be composed from visions that are free from these cliches. To those characters, the conflict between ideals and life that veer away from these ideals is very painful. I want to say that all these pains are actually unnecessary. It's the ideals that are the essence of the problem, not life itself." (Huh, 51-52)
However, it is difficult to view the ending here as simply critical or ironic (as it would almost certainly be clear in the hands of Lee). The final title card "Naught Shall Go Ill When You Find Your Mare" and the final line "I'll try to fix every fault I have for my life" would seem to be examples of idealized thinking, but given this sequence's stable place within a difficult and unsettling narrative, it can also be considered Hong's "most optimistic film". (Huh, 14)
Huh Moonyung, Hong Sangsoo (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007)
Kim Young-jin, Lee Chang-Dong (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007)