Tuesday, 27 May 2008

WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN (Hong Sangsoo, 2004)

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Woman is the Future of Man is the fifth feature of Hong Sang-soo, and offers similarities with his previous work while also looking forward to his next films, although I have yet to see either the film that precedes it, Turning Gate (2002), or the film that follows, A Tale of Cinema (2005). It is Hong's shortest film at 87 minutes, and also the one with the longest average shot length (99 seconds). There are only 51 shots, well over half of which last more than one minute (see shot breakdown here). The narrative form, while not containing the experimentation of The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), is nevertheless more difficult than his last two films and more in keeping with Hong's earlier obsessions.

The narrative begins with two men, Mun-ho, a painter and university instructor, and Heon-jun, a film director. After meeting outside Mun-ho's large house (he is married but we never meet his wife), the two men go to a restaurant to eat and drink. What follows is the longest shot of the film, over six minutes, most of which is a static two-shot (Figure 1). However, after the men argue (about a woman, of course), Mun-ho exits. Heon-jun asks the waitress to be in his film, she refuses, the camera pans over to her at the cash register, and then back to Heon-ju, who gazes out the window and makes eye contact with a woman (Figure 2), after which the shot finally cuts. We do not realize it yet, but this actually begins a flashback from Heon-jun's perspective about his relationship with Seon-hwa. Eventually, the film returns to the two-shot back at the restaurant (Figure 3). What follows is another very long take, the second longest of the film (over five minutes long) in which the earlier shot is repeated. This time, Heon-jun leaves, Mun-ho asks the waitress to pose nude for him, the camera pans away and then back, and Mun-ho makes eye contact with the same woman (I believe) (Figure 4) before Hong cuts. We then begin Mun-ho's flashback and his relationship with the same woman, Seon-hwa.

After these two flashbacks, the two men go to meet Seon-hwa again, and end up waiting for her at a bar (Figure 5). This shot is another two-shot, but now even the background of the earlier, simple shots is gone and we get only a wall. This is the nadir of the characters and their limited outlooks, and after Seon-hwa arrives shortly afterwards the compositions over the second half of the film become more crowded and complex (Figures 6 and 7). This mirrors the deepening of the characters' world. After another night with Seon-hwa in which both men sleep with her again (in the same order as before), we leave this trio and join Mun-ho and his students. Mun-ho takes a female student to a hotel for sex (a love hotel, as they are known in Korea) but they are discovered by a jealous male student. The final shot has Mun-ho and the girl discussing the possibility of being found out by the school. Here we have another two shot, but in the open air of the city (Figure 8). Eventually she leaves and the film ends with Mun-ho alone but yet framed against the vast vanishing point of the city lights (Figure 9). The ending denotes isolation, but also a denial of the type of selfishness Mun-ho has exhibited. The characters may deny the social world in their artistic solipsism, but the ending suggests that Hong wants to go beyond this.

A final note: one of my favorite filmmakers is Abbas Kiarostami, and one of the aspects of his work I most admire is the degree of self-criticism on display (an especially great example is The Wind Will Carry Us). I see a similar quality in Hong, and one that is becoming more and more present through his artist surrogate characters. His new film, Night and Day, moves further along in this direction.

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