Filmmaker Retrospective: The Contradictory Cinema of Hong Sang-soo

The Remaining Catalog (Ranker From Best to Least)


Oki’s Movie (2011)

Oki’s Movie (2011)

Broken into four chapter this time, Oki’s Movie tells the story of three people over the course of several years. The first short takes place in the present, in which a director/instructor named Jin-gu (Lee Sun-kyun) is dealing with the controversy behind rumors against himself and his senior colleague Song (Moon Sung-keun).

Jaded and somewhat hypocritical, Jin-gu puts himself in a career-ending position after an early drinking session. The remaining three chapters jump in the past, revealing Jin-gu’s origins as a film student, Song’s hesitant days as an instructor, and how both men were affected by the titular film student, Oki (Jung Yu-mi).

Oki’s Movie is classic Hong done today. What that means is the style, structure, (asshole) characters, and scenarios (drinking and arguing) from a decade ago are still prevalent in this later film — minus the awkward sex. This does not feel like his later romantic comedies such as Hahaha and Like You Know It All.

There’s a scene during a Q&A session that’s as uncomfortable as Hong’s more intense, drunken scenes. It’s the first time a character has explicitly declared the death of arthouse films, lost to the big-budget mainstream. They state that while arthouse and independent films can still be made, it’s much more difficult to have it funded when if it doesn’t appeal to the widest possible audience.

The struggle between making something personal or mainstream is present through interweaving dynamics and stories of the three main characters. It’s interesting to not only see a film student’s perspective, but to see how that perspective changes after said student graduates, then spends a few years making a few features.

On top of all that, it show the inverse side, revealing the instructor’s “progression” in flashbacks as well. Being Hong though, their stories aren’t told in straightforward fashion. There’s a reason why he scores each chapter with scored with The Pomp and Circumstances March, since it’s ironic that their growth as people suffer as they grow as artist.


The Day He Arrives (2011)

The Day He Arrives (2011)

Sung-joon (Yoo Joon-sang) is a director on hiatus as he travels to Seoul for a few days to visit his friend Young-ho (Kim Sang-jung). When when Young-ho doesn’t show up, Sung-joon drinks and visits his hesitant ex-girlfriend Kyung-jin (Kim Bo-kyeong). When he finally meets Young-ho and the many other people who’ll accompany them, Sung-joon takes his experience with his ex into consideration when interacting with former friends and colleagues.

What’s fascinating about this film other than being presented in black and white (but shot in color), is that this it’s Hong’s more subdued film. There’s the familiar drunken argument, but it never escalates to glass-shattering or insult-spewing heights. At the worst, someone is referred to as selfish.

Despite many of these moments coming as realistic in Hong’s other films, this one felt the closest based on the characters and scenarios presented. It actually probably features the most drinking in all his films, but surprisingly holds back the outbursts. This actually helps The Day He Arrives stand out is that lead — flaws and all — is actually not as reprehensible.

Sung-joon gradually becomes more aware and honest as the film progresses. Therefore, his decision near the end might be uncomfortable for him, but he does it out of others. The eventual disappearance of his opening narration somewhat supports that notion. Several of his films imply the repercussions of burning bridges and relationships in that industry, but The Day He Arrives puts that idea at the forefront several times — all without making a drunken mess.

As for why Hong made this one black and white in 2011? To him, winter just popped.


Like You Know It All (2009)


Kyeong-nam (Kim Tae-woo) is an arthouse filmmaker that gets invited to judge a small festival in Jecheon. Initially hesitant, he goes, but gets distracted with drinking and old friends, severely disappointing the judges panel. Leaving it behind, Kyeong-nam travels to Jeju Island to see an old mentor (Moon Chang-gil), only to be smitten by his wife, Soon (Go Hyun-jung), who happens to be the protagonist’s old girlfriend.

Like You Know it All takes the frustrated director and goes a step deeper, literally entering his thoughts through his narration. It follows the same setup as before, but now with Kyeong-nam’s voice-overs to the audience.

Initially it seems that narration as such might undercut any of the grounded world-building done through Hong’s long takes and improvisational production. He still has those shots, but they’re simply interrupted by Kyeong-nam’s thoughts. Initially, it’s off putting, but over time, audiences get the sense that his narration is meant to convey his internal psyche to the audience.

However, when the narration blatantly doesn’t match up with what’s presented onscreen, you immediately see what Hong’s trying to say about his lead. Aside from that construct, Like You Know It All’s attempts at comedy mostly work, while other times it’s quite jarring.

Actor Yoo Joon-sang returns as Kyeong-nam’s film school colleague, and their eventual fight is probably the funniest moment in the film. Korean superstar Ha Jung-woo has a small role in this film, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity playing a sensitive henchman of sorts.

Once again, Like You Know It All has some odd tonal inconsistencies for a Hong film, and actual feels similar to Korean dramas or thrillers that oddly jump from dark to slapstick comedy. Still, the ending is actually fantastic, a long shot in which Kyeong-nam is called on his bullshit, but in a way that’s quite adult. If you can’t tell by now, Hong likes subverting expectations for his climaxes, as much as he enjoys playing it head on.


Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013)

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013)

Told through three separate diary entries, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon tells the story of a half-Korean female film student named Haewon. Starting in March 21, 2012, Haewon recollects her last few days spent with her mother (Kim Ja-ok) before moving to the story of her relationship with her married film Professor Lee Seoung-joon (Lee Sun-kyun).

The framing device isn’t as radical as before. Channeling In Another Country, Haewon’s three separate diary entries reveal segments regarding Haewon’s relationship — past and present — with her instructor and classmates.

The film is highly more recommendable than In Another Country, but that’s not really saying much. Haewon is slightly more timid than someone like Oki (Oki’s Movie) and Sunhi (Our Sunhi), but her character doesn’t undergo much of a change as those ladies did. In fact, the one character that does somewhat change is her Professor.

It’s especially challenging to identify with Haewon when the audience only gets a snippets of her doing something other than walking. Aside from a bit at the end, she largely remains unchanged. Or at least, that’s how it seems. The main issue with reading this film is that her character falls asleep and dreams certain scenarios on top of writing her diary entries.

Based on Hong’s past films, it’s best not to take all the information at face value, because certain scenes might not have actually taken place or might’ve undergone manipulation. Personally, I found it somewhat difficult to pinpoint if Hong’s message — assuming he has one in this film. It is, however, worth watching. The locations look great, and there’s a genuinely great sequence involving the couple and Beethoven’s 7th.

The acting is great, and Hong’s regulars can really sell the moments in their improvisational skills. It’s not a bad effort, but it does feel a bit lighter. AND fun fact: the couple from his previous film Hahaha, Jung-sik (Yoo Joon-sang) and Yeon-joo (Ye Ji-won), appear as the same characters, reinforcing that this larger cinematic universe by Hong isn’t limited by style and repetition of concepts and scenes. But instead of The Avengers, it’s the insecure artists!


Woman on the Beach (2006)

Woman on the Beach (2006)

Film director Kim Jung-rae (Kim Seung-woo) invites his friend Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woon) and his girlfriend Mun-suk (Go Hyun-jung) to a beachside Insandong so Jung-rae can clear his mind to finish a script. Tensions arise as Mun-suk confesses to Jung-rae that she not only isn’t Chang-wook’s girlfriend, but she carries a deep fondness for the director.

This film probably has one of Hong’s best scenes: Jung-rae tells his Chang-wook and Mun-suk the idea to his next film, told in one continuous take. As his story gets couple’s interest, it’s rough to see him struggling to keep his pitch exciting. It’a a scene that’s oddly universal despite the specificity of the moment.

The love triangle setup is something that isn’t new to Hong, with entire films dedicated to revealing certain truths about that type of relationship. The best example of this is Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, mainly since the structure contorts itself to prove a point about that topic.

Here, Hong shifts the dynamic of the triangle halfway into the film, going from male-male-female, to male-female-female by the end. He follows his technique from The Turning Gate, but here it’s slightly diluted through certain liberties by Hong.

When Jung-rae is done with Mun-suk in the first half of the film, she writes him a note (another Hong motif). Jung-rae receives an almost identical note later on from a different person and it doesn’t do that much to change his character in that moment. It reads a bit more than coincidence.

Once again, in a welcome turn of events, the finale subverts expectations regarding the usual consequences of unfaithful character in film. While Hong has also played around with such consequences in other films — most memorably in Hahaha — this one just seems a bit too generous. But hey, it reinforces the idea that to begin the healing, one must admit certain faults.


Woman is the Future of Man (2004)

Woman is the Future of Man (2004)

Mun-ho (Yu Ji-tae) is an art professor who meets with his filmmaker friend Hyeon-gon (Kim Tae-woo) after Hyeon-gon’s return from attending film school in America. The two friends reconcile, before Hyeon-gon brings up the idea of inviting his ex-girlfriend Seon-hwa (Seong Hyeon-a) to join them. Unbeknown to Hyeon-gon, Mun-ho and Seon-hwa have secretly been together while he was away.

Woman is the Future of Man is quite accessible as a drama, since the love triangle is dealt with pretty straightforward — or at least in Hong’s mind. There is a moment in the beginning where it seems Hong might play with the structure once more, but he actually uses the scene into something comedic, but also revealing of both Mun-ho and Hyeon-gon’s character.

Intellectuals do their drunken thing in this film, but only feels memorable when Seon-hwa’s involved. As for the two male leads, they aren’t Hong’s worst, but their insecurities seem forced, even though the character reveal their history to each other and the audience. Even then, the backstory is uninteresting, and it becomes really confusing especially when Hyeon-gon’s character is aggressively insecure.

Most of it is jealousy, but the jealousy doesn’t really go beyond a basic character trait. The question audiences should act in a Hong film isn’t necessarily “why does he act this way?”, but rather “What does the jealousy serve?” It’s a shame, because winter in Hong’s films don’t get better than this. This isn’t objectively terrible, it’s just that there are several better choices. I just couldn’t get past the first question.


The Power of Kangwon Province (1998)

The Power of Kangwon Province (1998)

The film is about two separate stories of infidelity. The first is about a trio of women — Ji-sook (Oh Yun-hong), Mi-sun (Im Sun-young), and Eun-kyong (Park Hyun-young) who vacation to Kangwon province, only to stir trouble when Ji-sook flirts with a married police officer. The second is about Sang-won (Baek Jong-hak) and Jae-wan (Chun Jae-hyun) who travel to Kangwon for leisure as well. Along the way, there are missed opportunities — even a murder mystery.

The paradox for this film comes in it’s technical achievements. On one hand, it’s easy to see why the eponymous province attracts these characters: it’s a beautiful location. There’s a static shot of the male leads walking along a cliffside that captures the mountains in all its majesty, painting the location as one of absolute serenity.

On the other hand, it’s probably the worst-made film in his library. Shots linger on without a purpose, missing cuts by more than a few seconds. Several different boom microphones make an appearance more than once. It’s distracting, especially when it pops in and out of a one take. At one moment I’m engaged, and in the next, I see the tip of a furry mic float awkwardly in the corner.

His sophomore feature is quite difficult to recommend, even for Hong fans. On top of the characters not being that likable, the shoddy workmanship of several scenes become quite intrusive. Hong has written a host of unlikable characters, but these two are shy from being the worst. Their sense of entitlement is oft putting, especially when both the male and female focus of the film at their core are just lazy.

Personally, that’s an uninteresting perspective for these characters, when even the most selfish and insecure characters offer some element of connectivity. Still, Hong doesn’t give them a happy ending, and his message regarding the infidelity isn’t absent, but the overall journey is simply messy. A definite slump.


In Another Country (2012)

in another country

A female, 20-something film student Won-ju (Jung Yu-mi) is hiding in Mohang after an uncle rips off some investors, causing the debtors chase after her family. To pass the time and cope with the situation, Won-ju writes three short stories that take place in the same beach resort where she’s currently located.

As a result, three short chapters are presented, each using the same performers, but playing different roles. The only connecting tissue is the character of the lifeguard (Yoo Joon-sang) and a French tourist named Anne (Isabelle Huppert).

In Another Country is a difficult recommendation, despite having some great elements. The framing device is interesting, and quite easy to follow. The end result looks quite raw and unfinished, but many of Hong’s film look that way — being a stylistic choice and all.

Of Hong’s reoccurring actors, Yoo Joon-sang’s performance as the lifeguard is quite great, pleasant in comic relief. He’s usually great with Hong, and here is no exception. Probably my favorite male performer from Hong’s usual male actors.

That said, the acting in this film can get pretty unbearable. Huppert is usually an intense presence in other roles (see: The Piano Teacher), but her conversations with certain characters are incredibly wooden in English. The inflection seems all over the place, becoming distractingly noticeable.

If Hong was trying to replicate the amateur script and directing style of a frustrated 20-something film student then maybe it’s passable. The rest of the cast don’t really change their performances that much, and I can buy that as a testament to the grounded nature of his characters, with changes being incredibly subtle. But their interaction with Huppert seem a bit heightened, like a parody of the scenario.

It doesn’t feel like two foreigners who’ve eventually found a common tongue in English. Rather, it feels like they were fed the most basic translation out there, with some of the Korean actors just speaking lines like they memorized it phonetically. The crazy thing is, as I write this, it’s the only film by Hong on Netflix streaming. I still wouldn’t do it.

So there you have it!

Hong’s films, assuming you’re interested, reward with repeat viewings. Admittedly, to re-watch several of these films (along with some new ones) in close proximity made the job much more difficult (when it’s usually the opposite) since they do tend to blend together after a while.

A critic I respect named Darcy Paquet actually referred to his films as quite “remix-able,” possibly the oddest yet more interesting critique I’ve read so far. Still, it is quite valid, since the many structural liberties will make cutting and mixing quite easy.

For anyone who’s interested in filmmaking or film’s in general, especially arthouse films, Hong is the voice behind their mad creators. His voice isn’t the loudest, but that doesn’t mean it lacks any bite or wit. So the next time you get wasted with your friends and wait for Uber to come, just remember not to cause too much a ruckus when someone steps out of line. Because deep down, even assholes have feelings too.

If you want to read and learn more about Hong from academics and industry professionals (and not some amateur film geek), check out these links:

Author Bio: Hanajun Chung is a geek and struggling writer. Once he got his degree, he found work mainly in post-production. But after studying journalism, he gained a newfound appreciation in writing about the things he loves, such as action flicks and South Korean cinema.