When Hong Sang-soo Pays You A Compliment

Can a director have a trademark line of dialogue? Hong Sang-soo does: When a man tells a woman "You're so pretty."
Elissa Suh

MUBI's retrospective Solving Puzzles: The Cinema of Hong Sang-soo is showing January 21 – 2019 in the United Kingdom.

Nobody's Daughter Haewon

Can a director have a trademark line of dialogue? Just as the sure presence of a stylistic camera movement (the dramatic zoom) or narrative convention (doubling or dreams), there exists in the films of Korean minimalist auteur Hong Sang-soo a trademark phrase. Three guesses are already too many for these scripts that are heavy on talking, but bereft of easy meaning. A hint: it’s often got to do with looks. The Hongian catchphrase is:  “You’re so pretty [너무 예쁘다]!” An impetuous and instigating force, the allure of the physical, or pretty, as descriptor is often arbitrary and inexplicable. The young women who bear the burden of such a compliment are hardly extraordinary. This is not at all to remark on the outward appearances of the actresses who play them, but to note that as a trait, this praise of beauty lacks depth of storytelling motive, the way that beauty is often a stereotypical and defining characteristic, like a fatal flaw in an adventure-fantasy flick.

Instead, in Hong’s work this exclamatory appeal to beauty tends to dangle in the air, conversational fluff spat out ad tedium. It can feel curiously unflappable when when said by Isabelle Huppert in Claire’s Camera (2017) or discriminating when spoken by former flames sizing up potential competition as in The Day After (2017). In Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013), it’s a collective compliment and blanket-statement from a young professor to a group of students who accuse him of favoritism. 

But, more generally, it is the choice phrase of male characters, men in arts-adjacent fields, said to their typically younger female paramours. Sometimes it is deployed under the guise of soju-soaked truth, but just as frequently under the clarity of afternoon sunlight in an empty café. Indeed Hong’s sparsely populated settings reveal a Korea purged of bystanders, a cinematic space free of distraction that allows his cast of characters to stand emphatically alone as if in dream, or perhaps more correctly, center stage of their own reality. Beauty is the instigator of men’s troubles, and while the age-old weakness sets their romantic calamities in motion, the women are never reduced to temptress or idealized naïfs. Rather, the ubiquity of the phrase, the ease with which it is pronounced, only highlights male imprudence and lack of judgement. The phrase is also indicative of their intrusion onto women’s spaces as they pierce the neutral zone with the weight of their blinkered assumptions.  

The consequences of such are effectively demonstrated in the two-for-one Right Now, Wrong Then (2015). A presumptuous meet-cute told twice, it is a lesson in what could’ve been that bends and morphs on the benefits of hindsight.  A meeting and flirtation between Chun-soo (Jeong Jae-yeoung), a director, and Heejung (Kim Min-hee), a painter, ends in disaster for both when he neglects to mention that he’s married.  Another turning point occurs when, at a late night gathering for food and drink, it is discovered that his flattering assessment of her paintings are his regurgitated musings on his own films.  As he’s caught in the lie, the camera does its thing, zooming onto Kim Min-hee’s face, tightened in indignation. His romantic tact, to use his own explications and justifications of art and liken them to hers, impose his own self onto her. Is this mirroring indicative of his vanity or is it routine laziness from an uninspired hack? In any case, his words, once recycled, no longer hold the weight of keen observation.

While the first half of the film sees Chun-soo declaring Heejung a sensitive person upon meeting her, and dazzled so much by her beauty that he thanks her for it, the second half plays like the first but in a different key. Chunsoo is at once more direct with her and honest with himself. It is a shift in temperament materialized by both tone and substance. Rather than assert, he suggests (you seem this, you seem that), and by approaching things with more nuance and sensitivity, he fares much better in this second go-round.

Right Now Wrong Then

Sometimes the appeals to beauty do have a success rate, as with the professor from America in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013). After he boldly asks the titular character (Jung Eun-chae) to coffee at the pay-what-you-want bookstore, he promptly and comfortably mansplains to Haewon her own personality.   Occasionally, in Hong’s films, as in life, this can spill into more overtly callous behavior. Hong’s specializes in capturing the shifting of stages of argument, from the poorly veiled information-quest to the all-out defensive in which all rationale goes out the window.Witness the make-up that begets breakup atop Mount Namsan, when the man’s loaded curiosity about a former ex-boyfriend snowballs into a brazen inquisition and then a one-sided rebuke. Claire’s Camera yields a full-fledged reprimand, a where the film director character vindictively berates Kim Min-hee’s former film-sales girl at a Cannes party for her short cutoffs.  

The pinnacle and consequences of this behavior culminates in Yourself and Yours (2016). In this little-seen marvel, Min-jung (Lee Yoo-Young), or her look alike, is spotted about town cavorting with men and inspiring gossip much to her ex-boyfriend’s chagrin. Each meeting happens the same. She’s approached by men who one-by-one claim to know her. Her vehement denial only makes this assessment feel more intrusive; to be known, after all, is more intimate than to be loved. The truth of her identity—is it amnesia, a prank, a twin?—are never explained, only that the men see who they want to see. She has become a blank canvas for their desires, the projections of their own visions and ideals.  

2017’s twin releases exhibit a lighter touch. In the achingly personal On the Beach At Night Alone, the compliments no longer allude to superficial appearances, but to intelligence and charm (you’re so, so smart; and you’re so charming). The Day After is about beauty in disguise. Kim Min-hee’s character is named for it. (Areum means beauty.) But paradoxically she’s skeptical about her own, raising insecurities about her femininity compared to her late sister or her unfeminine hands.  Caught in a love triangle between a book publisher, his wife, and his lover-colleague, she becomes a falsely accused interloper who takes the high road in this tale of adulterer-who-cried-friendship. She exits from their farcical drama unscathed, more mature than the rest, and in the film’s final scene, a cab driver says she’s got a very unusual look about her. Perhaps the look of someone at ease with herself, now not just beauty but grace.

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