Wednesday, 9 July 2008

TURNING GATE (Hong Sang-soo, 2002)

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After much effort, I tracked down one of the two Hong Sang-soo films I haven't seen, Turning Gate (thanks to Roujin from the filmspotting message board). Like all of Hong's films, I find it difficult to evaluate. Having seen seven of his eight features, it would be almost impossible for me to order them in terms of preference. Seeing Turning Gate in isolation would almost certainly detract from its effectiveness. At the same time, seeing it after looking at three of his previous and three of his subsequent works, it cannot help but be thought of as a transitional text. As such, it was less satisfying than his other films, although at the time it was released and even since then I have read reviews claiming it as Hong's masterpiece.

In terms of narrative, Hong avoids repeating scenes as he did in his first three films, most notably in the almost experimental structure of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. The narrative does split here, but the lead male character, Gyeong-su (an actor), simply moves from one woman to another. With Hong, as usual, there are still parallels drawn, most explicitly with the two goodbye notes each woman writes. Even the ending is based on a story told early in the film, and a truly odd scene of Gyeong-su lighting a man's cigarette is eventually given significance later in the film (although we may not remember it). But generally, the two stories here do not seem as obviously connected as in his other stories made both before and after Turning Gate. More than in his other work, the main male character is focused on to a great extent, and it may be Hong's most psychologically driven narrative. Unfortunately, that psychology turns out, eventually, to be rather limited and simplistically focused around ideas of purity. Hong's ending certainly critiques this, but does not seem to be able to go beyond it as he will in later works.

Stylistically, there are a few sequences in the first half that seem more expressionistic than Hong ordinarily presents. There is a scene filtered in red as Gyeong-su and his friend meet with two prostitutes (Figure 1), and a dance performed by Myeong-suk with an elaborate use of mirrors (Figure 2). But as the film progresses, the shots become more simple (Figures 3 and 4). Hong's editing rate is close to his previous film, but the pared down nature of the shots over the second half seem to point to his next film, Woman is the Future of Man, in which Hong will reduce his editing and shot set-ups even further.

Hong's handling of sexuality also pivots with this film. Hong's first three films were sexually frank, and all of his films deal with this topic, but Turning Gate is his most sexually explicit. In fact, the scenes are so graphic that an audience may question if they are simulated or not. However, by the end of the film, Gyeong-su cannot get an erection. He states that he is tired of sex and wishes he can "live clean like this and die". From this point on in his work, Hong will eventually reduce the explicitness of his depictions. I would link this to Hong's decreased interest in the whole notion of idealized conceptions of sexuality.

Seon-yeong, the second woman in the story, eventually leaves Gyeong-su at the conclusion. As the intertitle informs us, this reminds Gyeong-su of a story he told earlier of a snake falling in love with a princess but then being left by her at a gate. The final shot shows Gyeong-su come to the gate, and then turn and leave the frame (Figures 5 and 6). The shot remains empty and the film ends (Figure 7). This is both a downbeat, contemplative ending as well as a wry and satirical one. The viewer at once observes the connection with the previous stories (both of the turning gate and the fortune teller Gyeong-su and Seon-yeong have just visited) but nevertheless questions them as yet another romantic myth of the protagonist. Gyeong-su is not a snake and is not destined for a grim future. Seon-yeong is not a princess and destined for greatness. Rather, they are both acting out and performing roles and self-fulfilling prophesies.

But this is coming from a rationalist point of view. The narrative can be taken straight, and Hong includes a number of coincidences that give the film, like all of his work, a certain irrational, dream-like power. The last shot is emblematic. It is a rather simple shot of the rain falling on a gate. But it is also iconic, and has connotations beyond a simple description of its content. As with all of Hong, there is a materialist, rationalist discourse competing with a kind of illogical primitivism. As much as the film is a turning point, Turning Gate still acts as another chapter in the single work Hong seems to be making.

1 comment:

julius said...

I read your 'top ten': ever heard about fellini? it seems strange you don't even mention him, ever heard about cinema?