Nearer My Hong Sang-soo To Me

Discovering the South Korean director of "Hotel by the River" and "Grass" as a bingeably prolific and movingly personal filmmaker.
Greg Gerke

Hotel by the River

Isn't the miracle of art how we see the panoply of our own lives via a magical panopticon? Every time we look, we see something that's really all about us. In concert with this, I vaingloriously clutch Walter Pater's concept of how art gives “nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake.” But each of these moments, for me, is a multiplicity of moments, the past surfacing after bottom-feeding for minutes, months, or years. It might not be easy to see one's life in film—not in the narrative itself, but in the regard of the camera, the editing, how people say things and what their silences are like. It's really only happened for me with Eric Rohmer and now Hong Sang-soo. But it shouldn't be so surprising, since they are both romantics who capture the improvisatory moments in life, the coveted and the delusional love-at-first-sight moments (the romantic's base metal), episodes I erected monuments to in my own days, until those fancies taught me not to trust them so easily.

When Hotel by the River was released on February 15th, that made twenty-three films in twenty-four years (plus three shorts), and fourteen in the last nine, by Hong Sang-soo—a Fassbinderean rate. Over the course of a few weeks in February and March, I watched fourteen out of those films. It was winter and I have a young child. At the end of the day, my wife and I needed something light and not too long and most of Hong’s films in the last decade are around ninety minutes, with two of the last four only seventy. I'm not proud that Hong's films are modern in the most unctuous consumer way—binge-watchable— nevertheless they were made quickly and I took them in fast. Yet, this binging, as in most disorders, was not a craving to see what happens story-wise. I utilized a more topological approach, aiming to search out the essences, lusters, and behavioral tendencies making us human—yet never to entrap or capture the magic, but to feel its reverberations. It was more like seeing a show of Vermeers or Cézannes all in the course of five rooms—in that zone they play off one another and one can see the preparatory drawings for the large oils, like how Hong's In Another Country (2012) is a rehearsal for Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), while Our Sunhi (2013) and Yourself and Yours (2016) go into the making of The Day After (2017), a much more fleet of foot enterprise, and how the themes of Grass (2018) get refined for Hotel by the River. These weeks were like a nice extended party that we kept inviting others to, since few outside of the cinephilia coterie I'm loosely connected with had even heard the director’s name. What is so exciting about Hong is how “in process” everything is—he's ratcheted up his art in the last eight years so that one day we might be talking about the fecund middle period of Hong after the apprentice years, which were already refreshing. But there is no doubt we are in the midst of something rare, like Godard in the sixties, Altman in the early seventies, or Kiarostami in the nineties. But what is actually or “really” (a word used multiple times in every Hong film—geulae [그래]—which can be taken as affirmation or cynicism) the stardust in his form?

His methods have been refined to the point where they are the outgrowth of his narratives, the form and content spiraling together, caduceus-like. Each film now costs around $100,000 and even if they do feel bare bones (reminding us that you don't need a lot of Hollywood frills to make it wear well), they astound. First, there are only around seven or eight people on set: Hong and two assistants, the cinematographer and his assistant, and the sound recorder, with possible one or two students (Hong teaches filmmaking) helping out. He sometimes edits as he shoots and writes the dialogue for the day's scenes the morning of. There are hardly any crowd scenes, and when there are, passersby are caught looking at the camera. Whenever people are in restaurants or bars (where many scenes take place), they mostly are the only ones, and of late, there are hardly any servers; music is minimal, often with one classical piece played again and again (Vivaldi in Right Now, Wrong Then and Schubert in On the Beach At Night Alone [2017]). Additionally, his main actress in the last six films (model turned actress turned muse Kim Min-Hee) is also his lover. He doesn't pay his actors a lot, they understand that he “doesn't make a film to make money.” Having listed all this though, as in Rohmer, the setting of each film is of prime importance, a determining factor in the soul of the cinema. Some, as in Claire's Camera (the French Rivera), On the Beach at Night Alone (the beach and Hamburg), Hotel's scenic stretch of the Han river, and Right Now, Wrong Then's Hwaseong Palace, a fortress built in the 18th century, are picturesque and exotic, though they are not stressed to David Lean proportions. And there is indoor Hong too: The Day After (mostly shot at a publishing house and a nearby restaurant) and Grass (at a cafe and a restaurant and the street connecting them). Hong's indoor settings are as carefully arranged as those of Ozu and Rohmer. In the publishing house, for example, the lounge area (where many long conversations take place) has two sofas facing each other with a coffee table in between. It is presented rectangularly straight on, the two sofas bookending the frame. In the background hovers the pictures of Bach and Brahms peering out atop a ye olde sound system, with a stack of CDs and a small vase of yellow flowers on the receiver—marking another strike against Mumblecore (America's hack rejoinder to Rohmer, Hong, and their ilk) in its relatively unadventurous use of location and set design.

Hong embraces the world as it is, with no period pieces. Phones are omnipresent and texts are relayed to the audience in the sender's voice as the receiver silently reads them. Since technology encourages people to be more and more dismissive of people (they don't even need a political position to do so: Don't like that profile? Here's another!), it's a special mirror to get the perspective of someone who grew up (born in 1960) with face to face, paper and print, and bars without TVs, but has now seen the effects of arming oneself with a phone to carry you through the longueurs of life, as in Hotel by the River where the phone causes people not to meet, not to see.

Hotel by the River

In the after-burn of so many Hong films, my past has been revivified—and understandably, since the compote of many of them is the eternal recurrence of scenes, with slight variations. Many of his films make me feel as if I'm reliving my twenties, when pretty much every person I knew, especially myself, was like the lovelorn characters ready to immolate themselves over the least infraction to their ego, or even their sense of their love's majesty, bellowing in pain as love would weave its own tapestry apart from them. The characters don't understand life and they ask friends and colleagues, who often don't have the answers, to help them—a most common occurrence in those green years. Similarly, characters are often traveling and meeting new people—something tamped down when more in the world of responsibilities, as the characters get older and more life-locked in The Day After and Hotel by the River.

Hong is unabashed about his own life being the direct source of his stories, unlike Woody Allen, who tries to maintain otherwise. In almost every film, at least one of the characters is a filmmaker or artist, but we never see them at work—they could just as well be word processors or meter maids—and this is mainly because the films take place over the course of a few days (the directors are always in between projects), or over the same two days twice, as in Right Then, Wrong Now, which, if held at gunpoint, I would have to name as my favorite. It's an artwork striving to grind out a heterodoxy where the aimlessness of life is overthrown for the bounty of living in the flaneur style. It shows those endless winter nights where you keep walking with someone because you are falling in love and no one wants to let go. The aggressor, usually the man, is unsure of when to improve on the whammy of kismet that brought them together and to bore in, tip of tongue to meet tip of other tongue—something that sometimes never happens, but not for chastity-sake, rather to achieve the numinous and go beyond our verities.

In the metaphysical turning of the camera on himself, Hong is also pushing his therapy to hit a great nerve that is central to him in all ways. He autopsies the male artist or successful man who is often always on the make, ready to fall in love, but finally unable to commit, one half of the great crisis between men and women—though he also examines the spurned woman's point of view, most closely in On the Beach Alone at Night. This bailiwick is a fixture in all these films, from the sobering The Day He Arrives (2011), where a film director returns to a woman he repudiated to cry and complain how he now needs her in order to get sex, promptly leaving the next morning with the injunction that they should probably never see each other again, to the cessation of libido in the old poet in Hotel by the River, where the death drive takes over the passions, but not the need to incessantly call women “beautiful.” Like Rohmer, Hong wants to eviscerate the male ego, taking to task the low-key megalomaniac who doesn't know his feelings from a Publisher's Clearing House scam.

For all the ballyhoo over Kim Min-hee, and the cause célèbre of her union with Hong, the male leads in the best films—Jung Jae-young inRight Now, Wrong Then, Kwon Hae-hyo in The Day After, and to a lesser extent, because more ensemble, Ki Joo-bong in Hotel by the River—dominate. Flagrantly sloppy, yet keen about their own self-importance, these men are high functioning, but their Achilles heel are thinking how by falling in love they can escape the misprision of their souls. The Austrian novelist Robert Musil once wrote a line that fleshes them well: “The tenderer feelings of male passion are something like the snarling of a jaguar over fresh meat—he doesn't like to be disturbed.” Each of these male characters is often so sure he is right, when something gets in his way, he acts out, like the Right Now, Wrong Then director stripping in front of two friends of the woman he wants while she sleeps in another room, or he continually retreats, as in Hotel by the River. Such are the games men play, though the character in The Day After, while initially refusing to answer his wife's question about his mistress, almost cries when his new employee tells him her divorced father died alone, continuing a see-saw of audience identification with a man who, in the end, does the “right” thing.


In the last few years, Hong has shot a film in the summer months and then one in the winter—the most binding detail of each production, similar to Rohmer, who said his films were “meteorological.” Indeed, during the opening credits for Hotel by the River, a voice states the exact dates of filming.  Grass was shot the summer before that. It is a dolorous affair, there is much talk of death, suicide, and the joke of love (“Loving each other? What bullshit,” and “Love, my ass,” two different characters say). A cast of random characters keep meeting and flirting, but mostly arguing in the same cafe and a nearby restaurant. This time Kim plays a kind of auditor, of the eavesdropping variety, and with her Mac open on her cafe table, she takes in the quandaries of these odd male/female couplings, while once venturing to that restaurant to meet her brother's girlfriend, where she hears a haunting conversation between a man and a woman about someone in common who died—the camera, stationed behind the man, stays mainly on the woman as it probes forward and backward and examines nearby shadows, without showing the man's face until the final seconds of the seven-minute shot. The film seems like an exercise. Characters toss off rebarbative comments, but many land astray because it is unknown who these people are and sometimes the material or the actors in some of the miniatures is limited—the narrative topsoil is always being blown around and then settling, with some people whisked away and some reappearing, softened after their initial spikiness. Some sequences, along with the restaurant scene, are striking, like one where a young woman, waiting for her man, walks up and down the restaurant's stairs dozens of time, increasing her speed and changing in mood from chagrin to euphoria. Hong highlights the way the younger generation can seemingly, accidentally change their mindset, at least for a little while. Near the end, some of the people are gathered together and they try to get Kim, sitting close with her computer, to join them, but she won't or can't. There's a sinister, maligned metafictional sense underlying the whole enterprise. Hong seems to be examining the process of creativity, auto-critiquing (via Kim) his series of short one-act plays as they proceed, but the melodrama of human frailty is his sweet spot, to which he returned a few months later.

Parents are playing a wider role in these later films. In The Day After, the philandering publisher has a daughter (though we never see her) and it is the simple yet calculated act (also unseen) of his wife bringing the girl in an English-style blue coat (“mak[ing] her pretty”) to him at his mistress's house very late one night that energizes him say (in confessing later): “The moment I saw my daughter I decided right then, to live for my daughter. To forget everything else...To give up on my own life.” In Hotel by the River the layers accumulate. Some films stick in you, an arrow successfully puncturing the inner ring, and given that this was the first Hong taken in by the means the medium was made for, the temple simply called a “movie theatre”, it had a grander effect than his other great films: Right Now, Wrong Then and The Day After, with Oki's Movie (2010), The Day He Arrives, and Hill of Freedom (2014) close behind—all viewed at home. In Hotel by the River, an old poet, briefly residing at hotel in winter, has his two sons visit him and reveals he has had premonitions of death during his two weeks there. This leads to the father (one of the first elderly main characters in Hong) trying to placate the two bickering sons (à la Death of a Salesman) as the situation finally reverberates to the unseen “Mom” (they are divorced) who he left years ago, and who still today sees no amount of goodness in him (“[She] calls you a piece of shit, every day,” his older son relays). In a parallel story, two sisters, who both have their own “man” problems, are in the same hotel—they have two interactions with the old poet, but, in a ghostly way, none with the sons. The disturbed poet feels more kinship with them than his blood, whether it be the bilious reason of their overwhelming fetchingness (he continually parrots to them how beautiful they are—Hong has his types, as Rohmer) or his need of a non-judgmental presence in his last days.

The day after watching Hotel by the River, I took a nap and woke up, its sense-impressions still burning, my craw twisted—and so, easily ascribed to its melancholia, its death-centered theme, tears were in my eyes. Many films look at the process of death, even the celebrated Cold War that is a little too perfectly calibrated than Paweł Pawlikowski's more mysterious Ida was, but Hotel by the River is unique in that is encapsulates what it's like to die alone in these dark days of technologized time constantly speeding up and overtaking us. Phones are rampant in his films, but our parents, whom we constantly seek out, either in flesh or memory, to approve or infuriate us, aren't always too interested in answering theirs. We lie to appease them, because we think it's better if they don't know something (one of the poet's sons still hasn't told his father he's divorced). The old poet offers just enough wisdom and unapologetic pathos (“You can't keep living with someone out of regret,” he explains about his leaving their mother) to debauch the possibility of his hotel time being a mere sentimental journey—he also relates a quasi-parable about the two minds of a person (one of heaven and one of the street) that is tied to his younger son's name and it is just about the best moment all three share. Early on he is unable to hug his younger, more emotionally fragile son after the young man tells him he has missed him and bores in for closeness (arm pat only), and soon has an idea that giving them presents (stuffed animals) will help dispatch them, as he regrets ever reaching out. The repeated call “Dad! Dad!” (happening twice in the film—once for comic effect), acts as the cynosure, the golden fleece handed down to the audience to make us understand that: Yes, this is what the death of our parents was like, and this is what it will be like—an amalgamation so much more terrifying than anything in contemporary horror, something out of the Bergman and Dreyer (Ordet is listed on Hong's top ten favorite films) playbooks—black and white film forever the best format when tackling the nth subject.

What so excites Hong's base—that is, cinephiles who know that the most exciting things happening in the art (not counting special effects, if that excites you) are taking place in almost every country but our own—is his impetus to simply gather a camera, his small crew, and actors who will work for little and make a film. Martin Scorsese once said of John Cassavetes, “He taught us that you can pick up a camera and shoot a movie...when you start shooting, it's like a drug and you keep going...” This though, is not as simple as it sounds. It's incredible that artistic filmmaking can really have little to do with the story or the form employed, but all to do with the biography of the person in charge—the “what the artist has to say” bromide. Hong obliterates his personality for something higher and lasting; in a T.S. Eliot style: “[Art] is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion. It is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality. ... What happens [to the poet] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” So the digitized frames (or the few still using ones with an emulsion side) carry the very personal thoughts, fears, and feelings translated to where to put the camera, what the actors should say, what the audience should see, and what it should be directed to, hopefully, imagine—all this comes from the right profile. As the years go by and Hongs's filmography swells further, his biography (the affair with his main actress notwithstanding) lessens. The work stands for the person—the goal for most artists.

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