Monday, 5 March 2012

A Hong Sang-Soo Primer

As a contribution to the Korean Cinema Blogathon and as an ode to the great AV Club "Primer" series of beginner guides to pop culture subjects, I decided to offer an overview of a decidedly non-pop filmmaker: the Korean master Hong Sang-soo. Also, given that I have a presentation on Hong to give in a couple of weeks, I thought writing about the totality of his work would be a good exercise.

Hong 101

I saw my first Hong film just over four years ago, beginning with his 1996 debut, The Day a Pig Fell in the Well, which established many of Hong's recurrent characters and themes: there is a artist, Hyo-Seop, a writer, involved with two women: Min-jae, a younger woman who worships him, and Bo-gyeong, an older married woman. The film also follows Bo-gyeong's husband, Dong-u, as well as Min-su, a disturbed young man infatuated with Min-jae. The difficulty of male-female relationships, as well as the doubling and overlapping structure, certainly established a pattern for Hong's future work, but in many other ways it is atypical. This is true of both the dark, menacing tone and the rather expressive editing style. Similar to other "network" movies featuring large ensembles interconnecting, The Day a Pig Fell in the Well feels grander and more didactic in its themes than anything that would follow. As Hong's career moves forward, his tone begins to lighten, his editing style begins to slow, and meaning becomes more allusive.

2002's Turning Gate, Hong's fourth feature, is the first to follow a single protagonist, the actor Gyeong-su, as he has a relationship with two different women. Long takes now dominate Hong's style, and while there are some repetitions, the structural rigor of the first three films has been loosened. There are those who consider this one of Hong's masterworks, but I'm not among them. For me, Hong is at his least interesting when dwelling upon a single male character and making him the major focus. This is probably because his male characters feel like such dead-ends and showing the follies of these men has only limited value. For all their flaws, the women in Hong's work provide most of the energy and interest.

A major transitional text, if for me another of his lesser works, is 2005's A Tale of Cinema. This is the first Hong film to make filmmaking an explicit theme while continuing to explore his interest in dysfunctional couples and repetitions. The film director Dong-su watches a short film by his senior director Hyeong-su. The second half features Dong-su pursuing the actress of that film, Yeong-sil. With A Tale of Cinema, Hong introduces a new stylistic device: the zoom. With his previous film, Woman is the Future of Man, Hong made almost no movement into a scene, playing out the entire film in a long shot, long take style. The zoom allows Hong to maintain his long take style and yet still provide some variation in shot scale, but he also uses the zoom in a peculiar way. It is both very self-reflexive, as even the least sophisticated viewer cannot help but notice each zoom, and also strangely un-expressive in any traditional sense. One not only notices the zoom, but usually has a difficult time deciphering its meaning.

A Tale of Cinema at the same time marks a departure for Hong in that after this film, he would no longer feature explicit sex scenes. Much has been made of how "unsexy" Hong's films are, that despite (or maybe because?) of the explicit sex scenes the films had little erotic appeal. I think this is at best an overstatement and at worse a typical art cinema denial of any kind of bodily pleasure. Since its inception, art cinema has traded on erotic appeal, and likewise, since its beginning, critics have downplayed its importance. Certainly, many of the sex scenes of Hong's first six features have moments of uncomfortable sex that is presented more realistically than the usual smoothness of the sex acts in most movies. But couldn't it be argued that this very realism, this quotidian sexuality, gives it a different kind of erotic charge, different but nevertheless still real and potent? It's also worth noting that the elimination of explicit sex has not eliminated eroticism from his art, but has merely shifted its emphasis, making it more suggestive (and thus more traditionally "erotic").

Intermediate Work

Hong's oeuvre can be largely categorized as comedic, especially his more recent work (the removal of explicit and usually unsettling sex has perhaps helped this). It's hard to find an exact point when the comedic turn really takes hold, but 2006's follow-up to A Tale of Cinema, Woman on the Beach, seemed to establish a transition into a lighter tone and a less formally rigorous structure. Not that the repetitions are not still there, but overall the films feel less like a puzzle than some of the earlier work. Woman on the Beach is not a particularly difficult film to grasp or understand, which is not to say that it isn't as thought-provoking in its own way. Rather, the ideas become more explicitly discussed by characters, and the audience has to participate in the dialogue rather than making pieces fit. It may also be the first Hong film with a rather upbeat ending, and one in which a female character (played by the great Go Hyeon-jeong, who would appear in two later Hong films) almost takes over the narrative from the male protagonist.

Continuing in this comedic vein is 2008's Night and Day, which mostly takes place in Paris. The lead character, the painter Seong-nam, cannot return to Korea for fear of being arrested for having smoked marijuana (the harshness of drug penalties being more severe than the West). Separated from his wife, he begins an affair with a fellow ex-pat art student. Probably the Hong film that shows the biggest influence of Eric Rohmer and Luis Bunuel, Night and Day disappeared after its original release for a few years, and only recently has become available again on home video. I saw the film at the 2008 Jeonju film festival, and was my first Hong film seen with an audience. The very positive reaction to the movie, especially its comedy, gave me a better feel for how to approach Hong going forward, and even to reconsider the earlier films.

Hong would continue in this comedic tone with his next two films, 2009's Like You Know It All and 2010's Hahaha. Like You Know It All reunited Hong with actor Kim Tae-woo, who plays an art cinema director who spends the first half of the film on a festival jury and the second half visiting a university in Jeju Island to give a lecture. This is obviously a world Hong knows very well, and the character of Kyeongnam is the closest to a Hong surrogate that we have seen. Hahaha also has some clear autobiographical elements, especially given the fact that it is set near his own hometown. Here the comedy turns almost farcical, and Hong's deconstruction of masculinity is at its most thorough. Again, it is the women who really provide the interest, especially Moon So-ri, working with Hong for the first time, in one of the lead roles. While both of these films are enjoyable, they did seem to be traversing some of the same ground Hong had been exploring since Woman on the Beach. Although I do not think the criticism that Hong is repetitive holds much water, I was glad that Hong tried something a bit different in tone and scale with his two most recent films.

Advanced Studies

Although one of the least discussed of Hong's films, 1998's The Power of Kangwon Province is one of the more structurally complex works of his career. The first half shows us the journey of Ji-suk, who is traveling with her friends and trying to get over a recently ended love affair with a married man, Sang-gwon. The second half shows Sang-gwon's journey to the same location, although the two don't meet until the film's conclusion. The two halves of the film fit together in an alternating pattern when the story is reconstructed. Perhaps its only equal in terms of narrative complexity is his next film, 2000's The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. This film's narrative has been debated, with some viewing it as an art cinema-style Rashomon case, in which first the male and then the female character give their perspective. However, others, most notably Hong scholar Marshall Deutelbaum, insist that each scene only plays once, and that in the film's second half we are simply getting different time perspective. Thus, it is not a question of one character or another getting sick, but rather both characters getting sick at different times of the same evening. This argument is compelling, showing how Hong is trying to get his audience to not think in simple art cinema cliches. But there is at least one sequence, and a key one, which is shown from two different perspectives. It is thus not clear that Hong isn't deploying an dual perspective narrative, or at least deliberately misleading his audience to this conclusion. This type of narrative play would continue in some later work, but ceases to be the major element like it is in the early films. This is one reason why Hong's later work is more accessible, and why it may be best to work backwards in chronology if first coming to his work at this current time.

The Essentials

1. The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000): it is difficult to designate a Hong masterpiece, since the quality of his work is so remarkably consistent, but this is certainly the film that has provoked the most discussion for its puzzle-like structure. It also features striking black and white photography, which Hong would not return to until his latest, The Day He Arrives.

2. Oki's Movie (2010): at a quick 80 minutes, this may be the ideal first film for a Hong neophyte. Consisting of four short films featuring the same recurring actors (and perhaps characters?), it is yet another Hong film set at a film school and involving teachers and students. The final sequence, also titled "Oki's Movie", features the character of Oki recalling two separate dates with two different men, each taking place at the same time of year and location, only years apart. It is the best twenty minutes of Hong's career.

3. Night and Day (2008): my vote for Hong's funniest film, and also one with the greatest surrealist streak. This element has been present ever since The Day a Pig Fell in the Well (which is obliquely referenced here), with its matter of fact dream sequence, but reaches its fullest expression here, with nods back to Bunuel's L'Age d'Or. Not surprisingly, the result is also probably Hong's most erotic work, despite the absence of explicitness.

4. Lost in the Mountains (2009): one of Hong's harder to find films, this 35-minute short was made as part of the 2009 Jeonju Digital Project. It features a couple of important firsts in his career: the first voiceover narration and the first female protagonist. This produces the most progressive work of his career, albeit one that requires a familiarity with his earlier films to really have the ending's emotional and almost cathartic release hit home. Interestingly, the three leads would reunite two years later on Oki's Movie, which also has the format of the short film. In many ways this can be seen as a forerunner of that later masterpiece.

5. Woman is the Future of Man (2004): the most spare and minimalist of all of Hong's films, with just 51 shots in an 87 minute running time. Apparently, the shorter than length was unintentional, as a whole sequence had to be removed because Hong couldn't make the rhythm work in the editing room. Watching the film you wouldn't suspect it, as everything works together quite perfectly (unlike 2011's The Day He Arrives, another shorter film that did feel somewhat incomplete). Hong's obsessions, especially regarding repetitions, really seems to peak here. Maybe his most perfect film, if one that is maybe too slight and alienating to be considered his absolute best.


Pierce Conran said...

Great read Marc! I find myself, like many others, more and more drawn to his work. I think my favorite is The Power of Kangwon Province, I had a very personal reaction to it, almost sensory as I felt I was in the potent summer landscape so redolently depicted on screen .

Any new Hong film is something to get very excited about!

Marc Raymond said...

Thanks Pierce. The Power of Kangwon Province is one I'm looking forward to revisiting. Always interesting to hear people talk about Hong, seems everyone has a different personal favorite.

I'm definitely looking forward to the new film with Isabelle Huppert.

Kyung Kim said...

My video essay on Hong Sangsoo for anyone who cares to enjoy.