Over the last week I have seen Hong Sang-soo's new film twice. It is a typical Hong film in many ways, and does not really branch into new territory. But it is still a very entertaining and fascinating work, and provides much to think about in terms of his overall oeuvre.
First, the plot. I won't go into great detail about the story, but it is important to note the dual structure at work. The film begins with an intertitle, "Jecheon Summer 2008", and follows the lead character, Director Ku, and his experience at the local film festival (where he is a judge). This takes the first 52 minutes of the story. There is then a second intertitle, "Jeju Island, 12 Days Later". After his bad experience in Jecheon, Ku goes to Jeju to give a lecture on his films at the university of an old friend. As can be expected with Hong, the second story has parallels with the first, with situations and dialogue deliberately repeating themselves.
As can be guessed by this brief plot outline, this is a very self-reflexive film, even by Hong's standards. Nearly all of Hong's films feature artists, and some even have filmmakers as leads. But the director Ku in this film is the closest example yet of a Hong surrogate. Like Hong, Ku has a certain reputation as a talented director, but he is not commercially successful. During his presentation to the university students, someone asks him why he makes the films he does, suggesting that he is wasting his time since nobody watches or understands them. Ku's defense of his films could used to describe Hong's cinema as well. Ku says that his films have no clear messages and no beautiful images. Instead, he gathers pieces of life together and makes them into one, trying to get the audience to see afresh without fixed ideas. The student responds by stating, "you are not a film director, you're a philosopher". She clearly means it as an insult, and Hong seems willing to concede the point while nevertheless making it clear that he cannot make films any other way.
The connections with Hong's other films are abundant, although there is less of a link with his most recent feature, Night and Day, which I think is Hong's best so far. The immediate comparison for me was Turning Gate because of the focus on a single male protagonist and the split narrative, in which incidents reoccur in the new situation. There is even a reference in the dialogue to that film's most memorable scene. Ku is asked about a bruise on his face, and he replies that he got into a fight after looking at a girl's legs. In Turning Gate, the lead character almost gets into a fight for the same reason. There is also a strong resemblance to Woman on the Beach in terms of its structure, its lead actress (the great Ko Hyun-Jung), and especially its ending (which is likewise on the beach). In many ways, it makes more explicit the critique of idealism that has run through Hong's films. My only small complaint would be that there seemed a lack of progression here, especially compared to Night and Day and even the recent short Lost in the Mountains. For me, it had some of the same quality of my least favorite Hong film, Tale of Cinema, in which he had to take a step back before moving forward. But on the plus side, Like You Know It All is a much more entertaining work.
In terms of style, the editing here is the most spare of all his films except for Woman is the Future of Man (and possibly Night and Day, which I haven't had a chance to time). The ASL is roughly 78 seconds, and is even longer in the second part of the story:
Jecheon section: 52 minutes, 44 shots (ASL: 71 sec)
Jeju section: 71 minutes, 51 shots (ASL: 84 sec)
Long takes dominate, but so does mobile framing. The combination of zooming and camera movement is quite extensive here, and I would wager that it is the highest percentage of mobile framing of all of Hong's films. Here, again, the comparison with the heavy use of the initial zoom in Tale of Cinema seems appropriate. Despite the high ASL, this is a very different film than Woman is the Future of Man, which I have described before as Hong degree zero. In contrast, this is a highly expressive film in terms of camera rhetoric, relatively speaking of course. One wonders if Hong will continue down this road, or offer up another variation. One stylistic decision that did intrigue me is the use of off-screen sound, in particular the sounds of sex, vomiting, and crying. Like in his other recent films, sex is not presented explicitly in visual terms. But it does dominate the sound design, forcing the audience and the characters into an ambiguous position. This is especially true near the conclusion, which contains a use of off-screen sound I'm still pondering.
Watching the film twice in a week, a second viewing was perhaps too close and has caused me to underrate it. But even on first viewing, these minor reservations were present. I did enjoy it a great deal the first time, which may have related to seeing it with a large and appreciative audience. Another way in which this is a self-reflexive work is one that may be lost on most non-Koreans: the many number of famous actors in some supporting or near cameo roles. There is a playful postmodernism at work here that is not usually present in Hong. With this film and Night and Day, he has proven he can entertain a local audience. But unfortunately his reputation is such that it seems unlikely he will ever have any significant box office returns. Thankfully, that is unlikely to deter him from producing more movies.