Hong Sang-soo's Homecoming

The latest film from the South Korean auteur, "In Front of Your Face," reveals unexpected connections with Hong's family and cinema history.
Jawni Han

In Front of Your Face (2021).

When it comes to autofiction in contemporary cinema, a few directors are producing works that are as piercingly candid as those of Hong Sang-soo. Curiously though, family life has occupied the outer margins of the purview of Hong’s films. “For some reason, I get the impression that Moon-ho [from Woman is the Future of Man (2004)] fears that he might die if he goes home,” says Kim Hye-ri in a 2005 interview with Hong Sang-soo for Cine21. Observing the absence of the familial in his works, she remarks that Hong’s male characters seem to dread going home. “[Characters] have to leave their homes in order for my stories to begin,” Hong responds. He goes on to share his ethical concern when it comes to writing characters based on people he knows in real life, and that he is not ready to use his own family as a source material in his films just yet. In his latest film In Front of Your Face (2021), however, Hong directly grapples with his family history, particularly of his film producer mother Jeon Ok-soon. The film is at once a self-introspection of an aging artist and the celebration of familial legacies that are inseparable from Korean film history at large.

 In Front of Your Face stars one of the biggest Korean screen icons of the 80s, Lee Hye-young. She also happens to be the daughter of a legendary Korean director Lee Man-hee whose knack for portraying alienation and anxiety against the backdrop of modernity and use of ellipses have led many Korean critics to compare him to Michelangelo Antonioni and Yasuzo Masumura. Lee Man-hee and Hong’s mother collaborated on five projects in the late 60s: A Miracle (1967), Mission to Bangkok (1967), Cold and Hot (1967), A Day Off (1968), and Life (1969). Hong’s decision to cast Lee Hye-young introduces both his family history and the history of Korean cinema into the work—not unlike how Maurice Garrel’s presence invokes both family history and the history of French cinema in Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers (2005).

The film starts with the image of Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young), a retired actress, jotting things down in her tiny notebook in her sister Jeong-ok’s apartment. It is soon revealed that she has just returned from the United States after many years in Washington D.C. and Seattle. The two sisters go on an idyllic stroll in a park where a passerby recognizes Sang-ok and expresses her wish to see her again on the screen. The second half of the film revolves around the retired actress meeting a movie director Jae-won (Kwon Hae-hyo) who desperately wants to bring her out of retirement and collaborate with her. On her way to the meeting, Sang-ok pays a visit to her childhood home only to discover that while its architecture remains intact, it has been converted into a boutique store. And during the alcohol-fueled meeting with Jae-won, we learn that she is terminally ill and has five to six months to live.

Hong and Sang-ok share some significant biographical details. Both of them have lived in the United States for an extended period of time. (He received his BFA and MFA degrees from California College of the Arts and School of the Art Institute of Chicago, respectively.) In a remarkable moment towards the end of the film, Sang-ok shares with Jae-won a life-changing epiphany she had as she was contemplating suicide at age seventeen. Similarly, Hong has been open about his suicide ideation as a young man. Furthermore, while Sang-ok is an actress and not a director, her name is reminiscent of the most commercially successful Korean filmmakers of the 20th century, Shin Sang-ok. Of course, Hong has always been an autobiographical filmmaker, increasingly so ever since his relationship with actress Kim Min-hee became publicly scrutinized. For those unfamiliar with Hong’s mother, Lee Hye-young’s father, or how their working relationship has impacted Hong’s own place in the context of Korea’s national cinema, In Front of Your Face would be yet another entry in an ever-growing and ever-evolving body of work this awesomely prolific auteur. However, this context completely changes the meaning of the film, and in fact renders it something of an outlier in Hong’s career.

Familial and filmic histories are intricately woven into the semi-autobiographical story of In Front of Your Face, beyond the simple fact of having Lee Hye-young in the leading role. Going back again to Sang-ok’s conversation with Jae-won, we hear the director describing a precious moment from a movie made in 1990. “Sitting on a bench, talking in all the desolation of winter,” Jae-won gushes in front of her. This shot description resembles a crucial moment from Lee Man-hee’s A Day Off, in which two lovers, weathering the piercing wind of winter, agonize over the impending cost of an abortion on a bench. At the time Lee made the film, Korea was under a brutal U.S.-backed military dictatorship, and as a result, no film production could escape from suffocatingly strict censorship imposed by the government. The military censors committee took issues with sobering pessimism and “sexual decadence” that permeate A Day Off, and requested that it is recut with a more optimistic ending. However, Jeon Ok-soon, the film’s producer, refused this request, and instead decided to shelve the film in order to preserve its artistic integrity. It did not see the light of day until a group of programmers putting together a Lee Man-hee retrospective accidentally stumbled upon the print at the Korean Film Archive in 2005.

A Day Off (1968).

The rediscovery of A Day Off was a major cinematic event that forced the Korean film community to rethink many facets of Korean film history. One of the more interesting discourses to come out of it has to do with recontextualizing Hong’s relation to Korean cinema. A number of critics pointed out the striking similarity between the ending of A Day Off and that of Tale of Cinema, also released that year. Aside from the sudden use of voiceover in the endings of respective films, the two films seem to be in a dialogue through their shared thematic preoccupation with existential dread and mortality. Huh Moon-young, the director of the Busan International Film Festival, remarked in a roundtable discussion for Cine21 that these two films, in spite of the glaring 37 year gap, feel like “twin films produced concurrently in the same year.” Huh’s comment came as a great surprise since until that point, Hong had been primarily seen as a maverick filmmaker with a decidedly European sensibility who “modernized” Korean cinema with his 1996 debut The Day A Pig Fell into a Well. The rediscovery of A Day Off, in some ways, gave Hong a lineage within Korean cinema that he could be part of. For this reason, Hong’s decision to reference A Day Off in particular, out of Lee Man-hee’s five movies that his mother produced, registers as a symbolic gesture of embracing this lineage. The artistic legacy that belongs to Jeon Ok-soon and Lee Man-hee repeats itself in the work of their children, and this repetition brings Hong back home not only in the sense that he explores his family history, but also in the sense that he consciously positions himself in the history of Korean cinema.

Repetition is a staple in Hong’s filmography as formal and narrative devices. In Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), for instance, the film “repeats” itself in the second half with a notable difference that culminates in a different set of concluding events, which end up reconceptualizing not only the preceding half, but also the entire film. In The Day He Arrives, the protagonist Sung-joon finds himself being helplessly drawn to the doppelganger of his ex-lover Ye-jeon—literally “old days” in Korean—no matter how much he tries to move on from his past mistakes. In Front of Your Face lacks such explicit repetition in its form or in its narrative, save for the bookending moments of Sang-ok waking up her sister. However, there are different kinds of repetition at work here. Two locations from Hong’s previous films are reprised in In Front of Your Face. Sang-ok meets Jae-won at a bar named “Novel,” and they discuss the possibility of traveling to Yangyang in Kangwon province to work on a short film together. The bar “Novel” figures prominently in The Day He Arrives as the place of many drunken revelries and the act of repetition. It is alleged in The Day He Arrives that Ye-jeon, the bar owner, is often away from her business and sometimes leaves the keys with her loyal patrons so they could access the venue at any time. Likewise, Jae-won has the key to the bar and invites himself and Sang-ok in while the never-seen owner of the place is away. And Hong’s 1998 film ​​The Power of Kangwon Province was also shot in Yangyang. These self-referential repetitions, in a truly Hong fashion, come with crucial differences. For one, unlike Sung-joon who never finds his way out of the town of Bukchon where Novel is located, Sang-ok and Jae-won find their way out and successfully escape the cycle of repetition that Sung-joon in The Day He Arrives so desperately wants to break out of. Moreover, the two never end up making the short film in Yangyang, as Jae-won bails out on the proposed day. Hong may try to repeat himself, but he has since become a very different artist in 2021 from the man who previously made The Power of Kangwon Province and The Day He Arrives.

Another repetition found in In Front of Your Face comes in the form of repeated family legacy. Jeon Ok-soon’s and Lee Man-hee’s artistic relationship finds its intergenerational double in In Front of Your Face, but in a true Hong fashion, Hong’s and Lee Hye-young’s collaboration is not an exact replica. Unlike their parents, Hong and Lee no longer have to struggle with strict state censorship and overt commercial pressure. Whereas Lee Man-hee developed his authorial voice in spite of the fact that he was often pushed to make genre flicks to satiate the demands of movie studios, Hong has been making the type of films he would like to make through skeleton crew operations funded by his own production company Jeonwonsa. One could argue that Hong has been suffering from cultural censorship since his extramarital relationship with Kim Min-hee caused a huge moral outrage directed at the couple. But again, that is still a repetition with a difference. He and Lee Hye-young have the kind of freedom that their parents could only dream of, and with this freedom, they remember and protect their lineage, both familial and artistic, from oblivion.

During a panel discussion entitled “Adieu Godard?,” organized as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Godard Forever in 2014, Canadian film scholar Murray Pomerance directs our attention to the fact that Jean-Luc Godard saves the Torlato-Favrini family of The Barefoot Contessa (1954) from extinction by creating the character of Elena Torlato-Favrini in Nouvelle Vague (1990), thereby “revivifying cinema.” Hong does the same by invoking a very precious moment from Korean film history, which also happens to be part of his family history, in a story about an aging artist sprinkled with self-referential details about his own filmography. If the film feels mournful at times, that is because both Hong and Lee understand almost too well the precariousness of all things in the face of oblivion. It took sheer luck for A Day Off to be rediscovered, and so many of Lee Man-hee’s films are permanently lost as his career predates the founding of the Korean Film Archive. However, Hong and Lee have created a little sanctuary that houses their respective family shrines in In Front of Your Face, and here, Hong’s body of work attains a historical consciousness—both of itself, and of its relation to Korean film history. He is no longer just interested in “tales of cinema.” He is now after “histoire(s) du cinema.”

Thanks to Hà Duong for her assistance with this article.

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Hong Sang-sooJeon Ok-soonLee Man-hee
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