Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Jeonju Film Festival III: Hong Sangsoo

The only new film I saw at the festival was Night and Day (Hong Sangsoo, 2008), which debuted at Berlin in February. It has been in theatres here since then, but without English subtitles, so this was my first chance to see it. I have recently viewed Hong's first three films, but have not yet tracked down the four films he directed after: Turning Gate (2002), Woman is the Future of Man (2004), Tale of Cinema (2005), and Woman on the Beach (2006). Thus my comments below should be read with this caveat in mind.

The story begins with a title card explaining that the lead character, Sung-nam, a painter, has had to flee Korea for fear of being arrested for smoking marijuana (a serious crime in this country). Similar to Hong's other films, the narrative centers on his relationship with women. Unlike the earlier films, in which the narrative is retold, here the story involves multiple female characters that act as variations on one another (according to David Bordwell, Hong has been using this approach since Turning Gate, with the exception of Tale of Cinema). The structure is broken down by dates which are given in title cards, giving the film a diarist feel. However, the film's conclusion includes a striking dream sequence that makes one re-examine the entire story's reality (although not necessarily; this is not a twist ending).

Although there were surrealistic elements in Hong's first three films, Night and Day is the most Bunuelesque of his works, even including an homage to L'Age d'Or (1930). This is also Hong's most accessible movie and is the closest he has come to a pure comedy. It is recognizably a Hong picture, but with a very different feel. Of course, part of this feeling of my part may be the different viewing experience I had. Seeing Night and Day in a full theatre with a Korean audience who were responding favourably to Hong's absurdity was at radical odds with watching the first three films alone on video. Nevertheless, I think my comments about this film's more audience friendly nature are accurate. Upon leaving the theatre, quite a few audience members commented, "Wow, it wasn't boring!"

Thematically, Hong has seemingly left behind the earlier obsession with idealism and purity. The sexual obsessions of the characters are still present, but the presentation is more detached and distanced, more comedy than tragedy. Instead, the examination of the artist has become even more pronounced than the earlier work, or at least allowed to take more importance in the viewer's mind with the de-emphasis on sexuality. The idea of authenticity and responsibility in art haunts the film, although Hong is typically allusive in terms of the meaning of this in relation to the overall work. As usual, Hong is not constructing an argument with a clear meaning.

Stylistically, this is Hong's first film in HD digital, although it is blown up to 35mm. Since Hong has typically placed more importance on camera position, shot length, and mise-en-scene than beautiful images and cinematography, the move to digital makes a certain amount of sense and I did not feel it was a detriment. Hong includes a new stylistic technique by periodically zooming the image, a device not used in the earlier work I have seen. I would have to watch the film again to even attempt to offer an analysis of how this is used, but my initial suspicion is that Hong is not employing the zoom systematically to create meaning. Towards the end of the film, I had a thought that Hong was zooming into the lead character to offer a comment on his lack of awareness. While this may be true of individual uses, it would not be keeping with Hong's general tendencies to apply this interpretation to all uses of the zoom.

Overall, like most great directors, Hong shows the ability to maintain his auteurist distinction while avoiding a simple repetition of his early work. Although it is early, I would be (pleasantly) surprised if this film is not in my Top 5 of 2008.


Orinwarf said...

I’m envious you had the opportunity to see Night and Day, the only Hong Sang-soo film I’ve yet to see. Hong’s utilization of zooms first came into notable use in Tale of Cinema. For the best write-up I have yet come across on that film (and its wild, in-camera zooms), please check out Michael Sicinski’s essay that appeared a couple years ago in Cinema Scope:

Hong toned down the dynamics of the zoom in Woman on the Beach, where they, at least to my mind, tend toward a more traditional probing mentality (which would seem obvious enough), though they still occasionally draw attention to themselves. As you implied, the contextual nature of the zooms do not lend themselves well to a generalized parsing of their formal meaning. Your reasoning seems apt enough to me.


Marc Raymond said...

Thanks for the comments and the link. I was curious if Hong had introduced zooms earlier. The zooms here are clearly noticeable even to people not versed in film aesthetics, but they are less frequent than the description given of TALE OF CINEMA. Hope you get to check the film out soon.

Michael Kerpan said...

I would actually classify all of Hong's post-Pig films as comedies (at core). His films seem to be getting progressively "lighter" -- so perhaps the comic element is less hidden now.

Woman on the Beach -- one of my favorites -- is somewhat unique, in that it is the only film to date in which the focus essentially shifts from the seeming male lead to the female lead mid-way through the film (and then largely stays there).

I continue to ponder the mysteries of the Hong-ian zoom.