Filmmaker Retrospective: The Contradictory Cinema of Hong Sang-soo
“I didn’t like looking at the truth through other people’s words. So I thought about how as close to the truth as possible I could materialize what I see through my own language. I would be happy even if it’s similar [to the truth] by the slightest amount. In such a way, [it’s] laying certain pieces on the screen through a process which is entirely illogical, arranging those pieces by intuition, watching that on the wall not just by yourself but with others — sharing the same thoughts as some of those people, and being able to laugh with them. That’s what I like. About films.”
-Hong Sang-soo interview with Hancinema on May 24, 2010.
The critics of South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo downplay his work by stating that they repeat themselves. While they aren’t completely wrong, Hong is a filmmaker that tells his stories through the way he feels would work best. You can say that about any filmmaker, but after seeing almost all of Hong’s films, the man does it with such frequency that it’s quite surprising he’s built quite the remarkable body of work, and shows no signs of stopping.
Ever since his debut in 1996 with The Day a Pig Fell Into a Well, Hong’s universe has been returning to similar character types, scenarios, and conflicts among other things to make a specific point based on what Hong wishes to convey with each particular story. Whether it’s the troubled artist or the requisite drinking scene, Hong’s films are purposefully designed to see whether or not the musings of the “intellectuals” in his film have any validity.
Right or wrong, Hong will probably not provide the answer in a straightforward fashion. Most of his films are structured uniquely, applying the his motif of repetition to the editing. The narrative and structure are unpredictable, despite revisiting so many familiar elements.
As a visualist, Hong’s films aren’t polished in the way many others feature films are — indie or mainstream. It’s not a complaint at the slightest, since he’s able to still provide gorgeous shots, especially when it’s of nature. In fact, to say his films look and feel natural seem appropriate, even when black and white.
Filmmakers, film students, writers, producers, and other artists shouldn’t only watch Hong to learn, but to see themselves onscreen, rarely represented with such honesty and attention. How many other filmmakers have made five or six narrative features on a fictional director? An arthouse one at that!
As a person, Hong comes off as gentle and warm to anyone who give him and his films a chance, and doesn’t think much otherwise for those uninterested.
Based on multiple interviews and appearances, he doesn’t seem anything like his characters. But said characters are quite different — extreme in some cases — and their frustrations reveal several shortcomings. They demand to be taken seriously — filled with unearth profundities even when obliviously transparent.
But part of that could be applied to Hong’s films as well. There’s so much and so little going on that repeat viewings are almost a must for some, especially if you’re familiar with his library. If you’re trying to remember which film is about the troubled director who goes on a retreat to see an old friend then you’d have about four or five choices.
In fact, a checklist can be made that marks Hong’s more favored elements, to the point in which they can be drinking games (bad idea). Instead, his films are listed while broken into two basic categories: the essential starters and the remaining catalog.
[Full Disclosure: For this piece, I was unable to find a copy of “Tale of Cinema” (2005) and “The Hill of Freedom” (2014). The former can only be found used in online stores for an expensive price, while the latter is new and is hard to find outside Korea. As a result, they will not be mentioned from here on out.]
The Essential Starters
The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996)
Four separate characters all live in frustration with their lives, unsatisfied with their jobs and relationships. Once famous writer Hyo Seop (Kim Eui-sung) cheats on his girlfriend Min-jae (Cho Eun-sook) with a married woman named Bo-gyeong (Lee Eung-kyung).
Married to Bo-gyeong is Dong-woo (Park Jin-seong), an insecure obsessive compulsive who’s a loser to his wife and to himself. The film breaks itself into four separate, but interconnected stories that put these characters on a collision course in which they’re each responsible for their downfall.
His debut was a hit with the art critics, a fresh take on structure that wasn’t even seen outside independent circles. While it does provide the groundwork that would evolve with each film, his debut in retrospect is actually one of his most accessible, at least when it comes to South Korean cinema.
It still retains Hong’s preferred odd character types (when Min-jae isn’t working at a movie theater, she’s dubbing anime porn), as well as the fragmented storytelling. However, the movie also has an unsettling score throughout, notable when considering how silent most of his films can be.
It’s also his most violent, with characters lashing out beyond a drunken insults to full on action with sharp objects. Still, it’s considerably less gruesome than other Korean genre films.
Technically it’s a bit rough, being his first and all. The camera is static, but the shots speak volumes. This is one is a definite recommend.
The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000)
A charming, yet timid artist named Jae-hoon (Jeong Bo-seok) meets a pretty scriptwriter (and titular virgin) named Soo-jung (Lee Eun-ju), and tries to start a relationship. She is also helping his director friend Young-soo (Mun Seong-kun) finish his film. Young-soo and Jae-hoon’s friendship soon gets shaken as they both separately have feelings for Soo-jung. Sol-Jung, however, is not as pure as she seems.
Hong’s films have been referred to as academic, lending themselves to repeat views and deeper analysis. One can try it with all his films, but several provide diminishing returns. This is probably the most obviously academic, down to the way the film is presented.
Shot in black and white, Virgin’s plot repeats itself halfway, providing a different perspective of the events in the first half of the film. While you may think that’s not that different from certain titles, Hong makes a distinction by numbering scenes from one to seven, done twice to for the films remaining half. However, if you compared the chapters from the first compared to the second, it solidifies a certain truth after realizing Hong purposefully didn’t simply repeat the same scenes.
The reveal isn’t that huge, but the ending works, despite the manipulations by Soo-jung and Hong. Depending on how you look at it, The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors may have one of the darkest conclusions, or one of the happiest.
On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (a.k.a Turning Gate) (2002)
Gyung-soo (Kim Sang-kyung) is a struggling actor, dropped from his most recent film. He reunites with an old friend, who happens to invite a dancer named Myung-sook (Ye Ji-won). The three try to enjoy their time together, but Myung-sook’s admiration with Gyung-soo makes things a bit uncomfortable in the trip. As the day passes, her admiration spirals into an odd obsession, playing somewhat twisted tricks on Gyung-soo.
The Turning Gate is powerfully subtle, despite the blatantly obvious chapter breaks. He even goes all the way as to title each chapter as well, with all six parts unequivocally titled with what’s going to happen in the scene. The film uses foreshadowing to gently set-up Gyung-soo’s fate, but also plays with the timeline without actually violating the movie’s temporality.
The plot, once again, repeats itself in a way that’s reimagined and reminiscent of Woman on the Beach. The first and second half of the film are each dedicated to woman who know of Gyung-soo before he knows them. Hong, however, uses the first half to put the audience in a certain mind-set, only to slowly challenge and adjust the perspective as it nears the end. As a result, Gyung-soo’s inner persona slowly surfaces, without being too ostentatious.
As for the title, it’s definitely one of the odder titles in a catalog full of them. Throughout the film, I wondered when the title would show up, and eventually, it explicitly does, but the actual gate itself is glossed over. Instead, audiences have to wait until the end for it all to make sense.
Two friends meet for a session of rice wine in the countryside: filmmaker Moon-kyung (Kim Sang-kyung) and Joong-sik (Yoo Joon-sang). The two of them discuss their trip to a small town called Tongyeong. As they recount their tales through flashbacks, it’s slowly revealed that both men have interacted and affected the same people during their individual visits.
Hahaha is a romantic comedy that’s both accessible and raining of Hong’s style. It has substance, but also tells a complete story rather than leaving things open-ended. Hong’s structural exercise is there, with the framing device of the two friends enjoying rice wine being shown in only black and white stills, while the flashbacks are displayed properly and in color.
The themes of artistic frustration, commitment, and infidelity are all in this film as well, but Hong mostly saves these moments in the flashback. There’s the obligatory scene in which a character is caught cheating, and how the jilted lover deals with the scenario is one of the funniest and brilliant moments ever depicted.
There’s a bunch of drinking, but the drunk arguments are balanced with the pleasantness of the black and white moments. His characters are still flawed, but not aggressively unlikable. Instead, they just seem dim for people who consider themselves as artists. His actors are great, but Hong’s direction gets most of the laughs. The framing device, coupled with certain camera movements provide some of the stillest situational comedy.
Of all his films, this one is slightly more refreshing than the rest, and the happier tone near the end is much welcomed after leaving so many of his other protagonists out to dry (or in the rain).
Night and Day (2008)
Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) is middle-aged painter who, through a series of events, gets caught smoking marijuana in South Korea. As a result, he runs to France, leaving his wife. There, he meets a small community of Koreans, specifically artists, as he strikes up a flirtatious relationship with an art student named Yoo-Jeong (Park Eun-hye). Over the course of two months (presented over 32 days), Sung-nam must struggle with being broke, homesick, and sexually frustrated in a foreign place.
Night and Day uses the protagonist’s days in Paris as the framing device of this film. What makes Night and Day stand out is that the protagonist is an artist who starts the film guilt-ridden and distraught. The rest of film is seeing him frustrated and lost in a new land, which is ironic, since he technically escaped to freedom.
When he starts a friendship with two young artists, as well as meeting his ex-girlfriend, it’s fun to see Sung-nam wiggle his way out those situations. It wouldn’t be a Hong film unless he foolishly gave in to his desires, but it doesn’t really change his character…until the final two scenes. It’s not a twist, but a clever way for Sung-nam to face some of his actions.
This is the only film in Hong’s catalogue where the male lead character comes off quite sympathetic, even after making similar mistakes to the other male characters. While most come off as uptight and unlikable, Sung-nam’s dopey nature is quite easy to recognize, even when he’s prone to say dumb things.
Like many other South Korean filmmakers, Hong’s eventual change of location might hint at some stylistic changes. Nope. It’s still very much his film, but that doesn’t mean the location isn’t utilized. Even without the motif of Beethoven’s 7th, the scenes themselves still look and feel impactful because of how the characters react with the location, especially when near Deauville.
There some French spoken, but it’s hardly distracting unlike In Another Country. Hong sticks to his style so close that he takes his characters to Deauville twice, adding the obligatory beach in the process, a callback to the aptly named Woman on the Beach.
It’s still emotionally resonant, despite the comedic lead performance and the shift in locale. One would think Hong might’ve missed an opportunity to milk the location, but it’s actually impressive that he remained disciplined to his style. At the very least, it reveals a bit about French culture, something I probably wouldn’t have gotten from a wide shot of a museum (although he does have a couple).
Our Sunhi (2013)
Sunhi (Jeong Jae-young) returns to her local film school to get a letter of recommendation from an old instructor, one who’s willing to write one for her. It’s during this return that she sees her ex-boyfriend and budding director Moon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun), deciding to confront him about the film he made about their relationship together.
Sunhi is a female character, but she retains the same flaws that are seen in her male counterparts. She too is insecure and a hypocrite, ignoring the advice of others, only to use said advice against someone else like it was all her own. But unlike the mosquito-bite annoyance the male counterparts leave after many awkward arguments, Sunhi’s interaction actually affects both sides in impacting ways.
Hong conveys with his camera, moving into a shot of Sunhi reading a letter, only to keep the shot static the second time around. While she does the same exact thing in the same exact spot at different moments, the filmmaking reveals Sunhi’s inner feelings in a way that’s incredibly subdued but nonetheless affecting. Many times it seems that Hong’s characters rarely grow as people — with some just flat out dying in worst cases.
Here, he is able to do what he needs to with his story, but gains a pleasant payoff that could’ve easily been alienating to both his characters and audience. It’s refreshingly unselfish, with reasons why this film wasn’t title My Sunhi instead. Old Hong might’ve called it that, but not the today.
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