Saturday, 4 October 2008

A TALE OF CINEMA (Hong Sang-soo, 2005)

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"Hong Sang-su's films feature too many elements of postmodernism to be classified as existentialist; too much rage and sincerity for postmodernist; too much cynicism for romanticist; and, perhaps most importantly, too much passion for nihilism." Kyung Hyun Kim (2004) (p. 228)

Returning to Canada this summer, I was able to track down some scholarship written on Hong Sang-soo, whose films have increasingly fascinated me over the course of the last year. The best work written on Hong thus far is by the scholar Kyung Hyun Kim. This includes a chapter on Hong's first three films in his book The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema as well as an essay on Hong's fourth film, Turning Gate. I look forward to revisiting Hong's earlier films after reading Kim's analysis.

I was also able to finally track down the only Hong film I hadn't yet seen, A Tale of Cinema. It is with this film that Hong returns, but with a slight variation, to the split narratives of his first three films. Hong's two features before A Tale of Cinema avoided the direct repetitons of the earlier films and were increasingly pared down stylistically, especially in the use of editing. This is especially true of Woman is the Future of Man (2004), with an ASL of 98 seconds, by far the most sparsely edited film Hong has made. A Tale of Cinema is a very different film, returning to an ASL (63 seconds) closer to Turning Gate (58 seconds) and also adding the use of a zoom lens that functions, as Michael Sicinski has noted, very much like conventional editing. Of course, there is a big difference, since the whole point of conventional continuity, in addition to providing shot variety and audience manipulation, is to be invisible. Hong's zooms are nothing if not noticeable.

Hong was asked about his use of the zoom by Huh Moonyung:

HUH: The distinct use of zoom-in and zoom-out would have surprised the audience who are familiar with your movies. What principle did you apply in using the zoom?
HONG: Emphasis, intimacy, making of a rhythm within a shot, a sense of alienation, compression, economical way to handle a scene, etc... (p. 76)

The contradictory nature of this response (intimacy and alienation) indicates a lack of consistent use of the technique. Nevertheless, the amateurish way in which it is used seems to coincide with the first half of the film and its film-within-a film status. We learn that the first 40 minutes was a student film and was being watched by the director's former classmate. This immediately explains the awkwardness of both the form as well as the acting. But once "Hong's" film begins the zoom does not disappear. Indeed, it will not disappear in his next two films either. Nevertheless, the rest of the film still feels more like a Hong film than the opening. The takes are longer and the use of the zoom less frequent and more controlled. Take the two sequences from the first half that are repeated. The first meeting between Sang-won and Yeong-sil (Figures 1-2) is restaged with Dong-su and Yeongsil, only this time there is no zoom (Figure 8). The shot of Sang-won and Yeong-sil having a drink (which starts as a typical Hong composition) is less than two minutes and features 4 zooms (Figures 3-7), but the repetition of the scene between Dong-su and Yeongsil is over twice as long and features only 2 zooms (Figures 9-11). The penultimate scene, although highly melodramatic, is filmed without a zoom (Figure 12). In his next two films, Hong's use of the zoom will follow the pattern of A Tale of Cinema's second half.

In addition to the zoom, there is a use of voiceover through the student film section. This is dropped once the second half of the narrative begins, but Hong brings it back at the conclusion. It is tempting to read all of this as Hong wanting to return to his own student filmmaking roots in order to rediscover filmmaking, especially since the film's title is usually translated in French (Conte de Cinema). Like the New Wave directors, Hong sees the need to rediscover the cinema after becoming more and more simple in his technique. This seems like a necessary step, even if A Tale of Cinema may be Hong's least successful film. Part of what marks the greatness of Hong is the quote above from Kim on the difficulty of labelling his work. In this regard, A Tale of Cinema is too obviously "postmodern", unlike Hong's other films. But at the same time Hong needed a new start, having pushed his style as far as it could go. I disagree with Michael Sicinsky that A Tale of Cinema is Hong's best film (although Hong's oeuvre, as I've argued in previous posts, is very difficult to rank); it is actually my least favorite. But without this experiment, perhaps Woman on the Beach and his most recent Night and Day (which may be his best film) would not have been possible.

For a plot synopsis as well as a very intelligent discussion of the film, check out Michael Sicinski's CinemaScope review here.

Kyung Hyun Kim, "Too Early/ Too Late: Temporality and Repetition in Hong Sang-su's films," in The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004): 203-230.

Kyung Hyun Kim, "The Awkward Traveller in Turning Gate," in New Korean Cinema (ed. Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer) (New York: NYU Press, 2005): 170-179.

Huh Moonyung, Hong Sang-soo (Seoul: Korean Film Archive, 2007)

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