Thursday, 24 April 2008


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Figure 2

Figure 3

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Figure 6

Figure 7

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)
"Perhaps Accident"
-7 numbered sections
black screen
"Suspended Cable Car" (repeat of first scene but showing Soo-jeong) (Soo-jeong is suspended on a cable car overlooking Seoul)
"Perhaps Intended"
-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)


roujin said...

Hi, I'm roujin from the filmspotting forums. I've also been watching some Hong Sangsoo films lately. What I've noticed though is that a lot of his films are sort of the same. I don't mean this in a reductive way but, rather, noting the way in which he views male and female relationships as well as the few trademark Hong moments that creep up from time to time (drunken meals, sloppy sex, etc). He's a fascinating director whose work really should be viewed more in the West.

I've only seen three of his films but my favorite would have to be Woman is the Future of Man. That may only be because it was the first one that I saw. I'm eager to check out more however. He has a new film titled "Night and Day."

Marc Raymond said...

Thanks for the response. I'm curious which of his films, other than WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN, you have seen? I've only been able to see his first three films so far. I'm probably going to see NIGHT AND DAY next week at the Jeonju film festival. From what I have read, his narrative structure shifts somewhat after his first three films, becoming less about replaying scenes among the same characters and more about looking at one character having multiple relationships and how they may parallel or relate to each other.

roujin said...

I've actually seen the two films you've covered (kangwon province and virgin stripped) and woman is the future of man.

Orinwarf said...

Hello, Marc. I've always enjoyed your writing and I’m glad to see you’ve got a blog. I look forward to future posts.

I enjoyed your essay on Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, a film I have not seen in at least four years or more. I do, however, believe Huh Moonyung—based only on the excerpt you presented—misses the mark. While it may or may not be true that Hong, insofar as his films are concerned, lacks a steady value system on which to make reasoned critique of the events taking place in his pictures, this strikes me as neither here nor there when considering Hong’s style is, I think, purely observational. (For what it’s worth, I dobelieve there’s plenty of criticism embedded into the text.)

Also, I’m not so sure I sense the meaninglessness you mention in Hong’s work. (To be fair, I haven’t seen the three films which comprise the basis of your suggestion in a very long time.) It strikes me, insofar as I assume it exists, as sheer, unadulterated male befuddlement. And though the following words have mostly lost their original meaning through popular and critical usage throughout the years, I think Hong is full of sentiment—just not sentimentality as a device to reap emotional rewards.


Marc Raymond said...


My comments on Hong's "meaninglessness" were more in relation to a lack of clear political or social urgency in his work, and a lack (I feel) of a strong critique of his characters or society. Again, I think this is especially true in comparison to Lee Chang-dong.

This is not to say that you cannot find critique, or meaning, or sentiment, embedded in the films. And I would not describe the style as primarily observational. But Hong seems reluctant to construct a coherent political philosophy (even at the level of the sexual politics he is dealing with).

This is really not a criticism as such, merely an attempt to describe Hong as opposed to someone like Lee. I actually think that his recent NIGHT AND DAY is more coherent as a critique of its male character/artist. My theory is that the sexual obsession of the earlier films and the continued interest in purity have given way and removed the blockage to a thorough critique that existed earlier.

Of course, one may find this a regression to more conventional filmmaking and prefer the ambiguity of the earlier films (I still haven't decided myself).

If you are interested in Hong, I do recommend Huh's book, which contains interviews as well as pieces by David Bordwell and Claire Denis. It needs an editor, but is still a valuable resource.