Hong Sang-soo: Modernist Romance

All things Hong Sang-soo, on the occasion of a career retrospective and the release of the South Korean master's latest film.
Christopher Small

This article was published in response to Tales of Cinema: The Films of Hong Sang-soo, a complete retrospective at New York's Museum of the Moving Image. On June 23rd, Hong Sang-soo's Golden Leopard winning Right Now, Wrong Then will receive a theatrical release from Grasshopper Film. You can also read Christopher Small and Daniel Kasman's interview with Hong Sang-soo from the Locarno Film Festival here.

With her back to the camera, pencil-like frame aping the posture of a nearby lighthouse that guards the border with the sea, Isabelle Huppert’s atypical protagonist in In Another Country (2012), while dozily imagining yet another iteration of the story's romantic dynamics, becomes a typical image by Hong Sang-soo: a character whose momentary break from their own dreamy game of interchangeable personalities we are suddenly, inexplicably privy to. It’s a day-dream moment that can only be reversed by a structural shift in the story; when Anne's lover, a relationship revealed only by her reaction, approaches from off-screen, she’s back in the business of game-playing. It’s the same image in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013): Lee Sun-kyun’s back set symmetrically, eerily against a tranquil plastic landscape, here a golden, foggy sunset rather than the pure-blue stage of the sterile seafront (both may as well be matte paintings on a studio lot, considering both movies' game-playing hermeticism). The secret, never disclosed in the movies themselves, is that behind the camera there is an arch-modernist at work in contemporary films.

This unassuming director's equally-unassuming movies stand-out among a glut of calculatingly ambiguous festival darlings as some of the sharpest experiments with juxtaposition, abstraction, character, and storytelling around. The clues to this secret world—one that North Americans have had to peer at almost exclusively through their laptop screens, since the continent’s programmers have had, at least until recently, a fatal allergy to programming the South Korean director's work—are drawn out when the films are viewed in their entirety. The seventeen features and two shorts that stretch from The Day a Pig Fell in the Well (1996) to Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), which won the Golden Leopard at last year’s Locarno International Film Festival, were the subject of a complete retrospective this past month at the Museum of the Moving Image. But before this retrospective was organized, and even in the absence of a galvanizing programming presence in the Anglophone world, Hong Sang-soo pointedly has been one of the most prolific and distinctive directors currently working.


In a way, Hong’s niche productivity has doubled as an inky critical smokescreen. His films' unrivaled consistency effectively blocks the idiosyncrasies in style evident to the early movies from becoming a vital part of his oeuvre's make-up, so much so that essential works of 1990s Asian cinema, like The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), which seems to suggest an alternate reality of Hong movies, are now largely brushed over in discussion. The same process seems also to calcify his reputation as a reliable art-house brand, so that admirers and detractors alike might arrive at similar conclusions based on the banality or brilliance of his reiteration and reassertion of a handful of pet themes and formal eccentricities. Right Now, Wrong Then, his latest and simplest film, consists of about a dozen scenes and about as many shots bifurcated at the halfway-point and replayed with very superficial changes; even in the light of its Locarno win, it has been greeted with the vague faint praise native to almost all contemporary reviews of Hong’s work. There are several Hong films with a folded, double structure in the mould of Right Now, Wrong Then, usually of two varieties: those in which a total reset of the story (or what appears to be one) occurs mid-film, or those with a mirror-structure, where second half similarities seem to recall niggling specificities from the first. Right Now, Wrong Then is probably the boldest and most lucid example of the former.

In Hong’s bafflingly beautiful Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), an analogue to the new film, there’s a clever mid-point image that suggests the encroaching narrative relapse: a cable-car carrying Soo-jung, the female protagonist, who has until this point been viewed only under the influence of a male point-of-view, is subject to an unexpected power-cut. Suspended mid-crawl up a mountainside, just after a lip in the line, the car rocks back and forth, its contents momentarily shielded from our view. Like the mismatched letters dropped down a staircase at the start of Hill of Freedom (2014) that account for that film’s jumbled narrative structure, the split in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Hong wryly suggests, as would physical comics from Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon to Jerry Lewis, is caused by an action inside the movie: the cable-car’s disorientating rocking motion. In the next scene, the story resets and we come to see that things have indeed been reshuffled before they had a chance to conclude (the cable-car journey was to lead the protagonist to her eponymous deflowering). From that point, it appears as if virtually the same film will be retraced from Soo-jung’s perspective. The same scenes of male stupidity and boorishness that once seemed half-endearing if somewhat creepy, now have a threatening, maniacal disquiet, a quality brought out by what seems to be a new female perspective.

But Hong's re-simulations are never straightforward, Groundhog Day-like replays based on identical terms. After the split, he will often reshape situations in such a way that they no longer fit with the teleological or temporal paradigms we have mapped out in order to rationalize them (i.e. that we are witnessing the strict retracing of a scene, or a moralistic revision of same). Even Hong’s dream sequences are never limited by impossible perspectives. The resulting dissonance between what we can comprehend on a narrative level—the dim through-line traced as we try and solve the puzzle of the movie as it’s unfurling—and what is being depicted—the same scenes staged with very minor gestural or temperamental readjustments—seems as much the point and pleasure as any overarching coherency of time or character. As in The Day He Arrives (2011), the split in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors could in fact be accounted for as a linear series of events, even if Hong’s dispassionate images and knowingly coy re-simulations push these narratives to their limit. Marshall Deutelbaum’s suggestion(1) that Virgin is strictly linear, and that critics (and audiences) who fell into the trap of thinking that it was a dialectical film about dual perspectives were simply being inattentive, pays little concession to the overwhelming strangeness of Hong’s various transmutations of the same dry constituents of a scene.

In Deutelbaum’s well-observed article, Hong is quoted as saying that he wants the audience to be able to deduce the differing timeframes of the film by observing the smallest gestures, i.e. a spoon falls from a table in one scene, a fork in another—and that it was the reason he wished to shoot the film in concentrated black and white. Hong provocatively shoots what appear to be, following Deutelbaum’s astute in-frame observations, contiguous, otherwise unrelated scenes with an eye for uncanniness: he not only re-stages them in a similar way (same location, same actors) but with his near-identical blocking, the same unremarkable costumes, the same acting that shifts between the overemphasized and the underplayed, the same off-kilter, striated framing, etc. Hong’s obfuscations are not only found at a narrative level, but in almost every aspect of his creations—a union of form and content both. His structures, so repetitive and obscure, match the quotidian behavior of his characters; all of whom are trapped in endless performative loops from which they have little chance of escaping.


With their clothesline compositions, stretching a sagged eye-line sideways across the screen, the slightest movement of the hand, the minutest shift of the eyes, the cityscape of bottles and plates built atop the Formica table, like a horizontal Manny Farber painting—all these gestures take on a strengthened, highlighted existence in the minds of the audience: they’re as much part of the drama as any of the characters’ physical movements. Hong’s early films pit their staid characters against slanted horizon-lines, the camera high-up and set off to one side. In On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002), the compositions are halfway between what would be introduced later on—visual information, conveyed by a nexus of sleek pans and zooms, delivered to us bite-by-bite, as to an infant—and the flanking, static, side-on style Hong developed in his first two or three films. In both of his work’s iterations, Hong has the ability, like Albert Brooks, his closest analogue, to turn a restaurant booth into a Punch and Judy proscenium, the bottom-of-frame table as a mock-stage where gestures are amplified to a definite degree. Both filmmakers, Brooks and Hong, use unadorned wide takes, often of extreme length, to give their actors room to play out their characters’ neuroses in full. This lets them, as Dave Kehr wrote of Brooks' Lost in America in the Chicago Reader in 1985, “occupy a place in the film that goes beyond the immediate demands of the screenplay.”

Introduced with vigour a decade ago in Tale of Cinema (2005), the sliding zooms and waggish pans that characterize Hong’s current style—making uninterrupted screen-space-time divisible into close-ups, mediums, wides, and so on—allow him to be bluntly emphatic without ever imposing a disillusioning cut. Pitched somewhere between complete subjectivity and complete objectivity, these probing surface camera movements never quite break through to a single perspective, as would a cut in their place. Instead, they rest on people’s outsides, counterpointing one gesture, one expression, with another. It’s an effect that only the toneless anti-images of the later films— everything both contrived and spontaneous at the same time, subject to a moment’s revision but charted with the strictest deduction—could possibly achieve. Like Carl Dreyer, whose Ordet (1955) is one of the director’s professed favorites, Hong thinks of cinema like the ideal of a football game: a whole stadium full of people, all eyes fixated on the darting ball’s tiniest movements. Both Dreyer and Hong struggle to pare down self-conscious formal displays until the roaming camera-style becomes, in Tale of Cinema’s zooms and the spontaneous, mobile tracking shots of Dreyer's Gertrud (1964), a completely fluid, intuitive process of following or anticipating the characters’ movements.

Hong’s career began, after studying in both Paris and Chicago, with The Day a Pig Fell in the Well, named for the 1954 John Cheever story. Along with Kangwon Province, it’s a difficult movie for Hong enthusiasts to pin down for a number of reasons, not least of which is its pulpy, splashy content; many of the recognizable Hongian hallmarks are there but they seem to be developing in a different direction. Of course, looking at its relative proximity to Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, it's now obvious that these same quirks and techniques would become subsumed in just a few years by advanced versions of the same ideas. Particularly in The Day a Pig Fell in the Well, there’s little of the commitment to everything being realized within a square, narrow field of expression: Though conceived with an exceptional clarity and sober humor, it is an altogether more fixed, deterministic spin on the same tropes seen in a lot of arthouse Asian cinema of the time. There’s a symmetrical, almost prissy order to the way scenes are realised, while still not to the degree of Hong’s spreadsheet-like late films. But there’s already the view, more sophisticated still in the architectonic The Power of Kangwon Province, that objects or commonplace events should be filmed with a chilly clarity, imbuing them with a ghostly mystery: the non-narrative elements that one sees infiltrating Hong narratives again and again—disruptive prophetic tokens, materializing suddenly and yet springing from the objects of a scene, always at key structural junctures—are lent no thematic or narrative relevance other than as a form of jolting dissonance for an audience lulled into the casual rigor of takes of protracted length, banal, indistinguishable set design, and big-time, statuesque acting. In The Day a Pig Fell in the Well, the uncharacteristic sordidness and savagery of the story is less disturbing than the sight and strange adventitiousness of flowerpot ants, dangling vine tomatoes, a creaking door opening closing in the invisible wind. “The genius of flags is that they show us the wind exists,” remarks a character, years later, in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. Here the world is as loopy—and looped—as in the films of David Lynch or Jacques Rivette, populated by red herrings and throwaway visual details—flapping fish on land in Kangwon, half-smoked discarded cigarettes rolling on convex sidewalks in Haewon, etc.—that give the impression of haunted movies; of an eldritch netherworld bleeding through to the diegetic landscape of the film, and which would later, as early as On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, be absorbed into a sort of coda.

With his coquettish, final-act revelations of stories contained in endless dreams and dreams-within-dreams, Hong subtly creates a world, like Rivette’s, where it is not simply impossible, or unnecessary, or undesirable even, to distinguish between reality and fiction (or, rather, the affects of fiction), but one in which the very act of role-playing, which as an audience to these films we can only observe from the outside, is psychologically indecipherable; where the characters themselves live and play with the lack of distinction between the two. It's a droll conception of the world: the social roles each character professes to playing—an admittedly limited roster in Hong movies, most often either a film director, film professor, or film actor—are little other than placeholders for the dreary romantic theatre they later find themselves complicit in. And the dreams,  from which Hong’s characters constantly find themselves awaking too blur with reality, like a banal, creeping nightmare, remembered in sentiment if not exactly specifics, which one buries, never successfully, under the day’s frantic business.

An affinity for this kind of dream-reality split is suggested by Hong’s repeated experiments with bifurcation; the second halves of his movies are often shockingly direct in the way they dispose of the elements of the first. In The Power of Kangwon Province, the narrative resets halfway and only gradually do we come to understand that we are watching a new film from the perspective of someone—an ex-boyfriend— mentioned tangentially. Eventually intertwining as one, the movie’s two threads are otherwise woven only by an off-screen murder plot, the act itself elided and half-discussed only vaguely by the half-interested characters. On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, like Like You Know it All (2010), concerns a certain Vertigo-like, Vertigo-lite hunt for perfection; an impossible quest and final attempt, filmed less obsessively than in Hitchcock, to realize an imagined, faded ideal in a physical form; to impose an obsession, a secret fantasy, on a living woman. In both, the film ends at the halfway point (or perhaps, as in Tale of Cinema, another begins), only to continue past the boundaries we’ve foolishly staked for the drama on the basis of the first handful of scenes. But while Hong’s juxtaposed narratives suggest a hidden continuity, drawing out the obsessive behavioral trails of his Scottie-like protagonists across the two halves, his images, the antithesis of Hitchcock’s, do the opposite: they suggest nothing, stress nothing.

The smashed soju bottle found on the beach in In Another Country, thrown to the ground in one variation of the story and discovered in another, both by an “Anne” roaming the same stretch of sand, appears to transcend arbitrary markers of time and borders of reality both. Like Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, near-identical set-ups abound throughout, confounding our comprehension further and directing our attention to the exact gestures that the drama, the formal and the narrative, rests on. The best of the late films, In Another Country’s an ingenious, inconclusive movie: centerless and dagger-sharp, with its original structure erected around the very idea of performance—a clever way to solve the problem of Huppert’s integration into Hong’s insular world. Her arrow-straight posture—by the sea, smoking, walking up a country lane and away from the camera—comes to define itself as the primary image of the film: from the back, face shielded, motivations not simply mysterious but programmed and machine-like. She's almost regarded by Hong as someone passing through the movie. Her behavior, carved up into several constituents by the modernist device of the narrator-screenwriter constructing the three Annes in her notebook, is divided further by the private vs. public life displayed at various points by each of the clones. In Hong’s bland, wide-shot style, and his blurring of familiar action, it becomes impossible to deduce what exactly any of the characters could be thinking at any moment. Instead, Hong directs the audience to observe the spontaneous ways these characters’ extempore feelings are made manifest in the moment. The ending, in which the final Anne disappears from the lives of the supporting characters, recovers an umbrella deposited by one of her previous iterations, and walks out of the town and out of the movie proper, appears to suggest a resolution to a resolutely irresolute movie. It's a philosophical conclusion rather than a metaphysical one: the conclusion to a narrative that never existed.

1. August 2005 issue of New Review of Film and Television Studies

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