Hong Sang-soo’s new film, The Day He Arrives, premieres in Cannes this month. We caught up with the filmmaker at the Jeonju International Film Festival for an informal chat.
NOTEBOOK: Can you think of a formative experience that led you to do what you do?
HONG SANG-SOO: It was an accident. I met this guy, he was drunk. He said that I might be good for the theater. I didn’t have any plan at that moment. I returned to my room that night and thought seriously about it. So I prepared, got into the university… But when I got there, and I joined the theater department, I didn’t like the senior students. They always asked me to do things I didn’t want to do. I looked around and I saw cinema students, they were quiet, more independent in spirit… and they didn’t have to work all together like in the theater department. So I switched to cinema.
NOTEBOOK: Did you watch a lot films in that period?
HONG: Not many. I only started watching so-called important films when I was 26-27, when I got into the Art Institute of Chicago. There was this very good video rental store, Facets… Today I don’t even go to the cinema, only to see films by people I know. At festivals, for example, I don’t like the environment… waiting in line, etc. Usually I go to the cinema in the daytime when there aren’t many people, usually alone, or with two or three people I like.
NOTEBOOK: Can you say something about new film, The Day He Arrives?
HONG: I’m not good at describing!
NOTEBOOK: I saw the trailer online, it’s great. Why did you do it backwards?
HONG: Because it’s fun.
NOTEBOOK: What does it mean for you to go to Cannes?
HONG: Good exposure. Some recognition. Meet important people. My actors like to go. I don’t give them a lot of money, so Cannes is a reward. They have to pay their air, but I provide the room and food for them.
NOTEBOOK: Would you ever shoot a film at a film festival like that?
HONG: If you want to shoot outside Korea, it’s more money.
NOTEBOOK: You shot in Paris.
HONG: Well, I had a lot of help from French and Korean people. S’okay.
NOTEBOOK: Do you find it difficult to do films at the rate that you do them?
HONG: So far it’s okay. My budgets are really low. Really, really low.
NOTEBOOK: But also in terms of creativity…Do you find it easy to create new stories?
HONG: I don’t have a hobby! The only thing is that I drink. But even these days I drink less than I used to. Now I drink twice a week, before it was five, six times…every night from like 8pm to 2am…
NOTEBOOK: What do you drink?
HONG: It used to be soju, now to makkoli [Korean rice wine] and beer. But sometimes I still want to drink soju.
NOTEBOOK: I was in Seoul the other night, in Insadong. I heard that’s a neighborhood you like to go to drink…
HONG: Yeah, I used to go there a lot. I shot my new film, The Day He Arrives, around Insadong.
NOTEBOOK: I tried to find that bar that you like...
HONG: Ah, it’s very hard to find, because it’s down a very small alley and there’s no big sign. That place has been there for thirty years. I used to go there when I was twenty.
NOTEBOOK: Do you derive inspiration when you’re drinking?
HONG: Oh, not only. When I’m in the car, or reading a book, too.
NOTEBOOK: But it seems like in your films people are always eating and drinking a lot together.
HONG: Yeah, that’s what you do. What would you do in life if not eat and drink? Korean people, you know, we drink a lot.
NOTEBOOK: Are you already planning another film?
HONG: My plan is to shoot something in July, one hour from Jeonju, in Puan. Some people told me about this place, so I went there yesterday. S’okay, so maybe I’ll shoot there.
NOTEBOOK: Do you ever think about making genre or period films?
HONG: Genre film, no, I don’t know… Period film, maybe. I don’t know what era I would set it in. But I could always borrow the costumes from the broadcasting company. I’m sure they could let me use some of them.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think about literature when you make your films?
HONG: Possibly. There are many books that have a good, interesting structure. Probably I’m very conscious of that. When I start something, the form is usually coming out of the material itself, or it’s changing. I’m using everyday kind of situations, and the form comes out of these situations.
NOTEBOOK: When you’re writing, do you listen to certain things, read certain things, etc.?
HONG: I don’t consciously set up a certain environment. It’s more of an accident. In Night and Day, for example, I used Beethoven. I like that music a lot, but I had forgotten about it, it wasn’t a part of my life anymore. And then in the first floor of my building there was this cash machine, and when I went to withdraw money this machine always played Beethoven music. It’s usually things like that that inspire me. At the beginning of the process, I like to get my material from the, how I can say this…unfiltered space of living – you know what I mean?
NOTEBOOK: What would you do if you couldn’t make films?
HONG: I don’t know. As long as I can move around, I’ll make films.
NOTEBOOK: Some filmmakers, like Béla Tarr, say they’re only going to make an x number of films, and then they’ll stop… Do you ever think about that?
HONG: How can he say that? How does he know what’ll happen the next day? Why make plans?
NOTEBOOK: Your jacket says “move to movies”…
HONG: My students made this jacket for the department, and they gave me one.
NOTEBOOK: What does “move to movies” mean?
HONG: I don’t know. It’s bad English! [Laughs]
NOTEBOOK: I heard you don’t like interviews.
HONG: S’okay. You know, it’s hard to generalize. I like to believe that my films are my best expression, and adding to that is meaningless. But it helps. Now I have a new film to show in Cannes, they’ll write about it, they know it’s coming out.
Responses collected on April 30th in Jeonju, South Korea.