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Are the Kids Alright?: A Dialogue on Hong Sang-soo's "Introduction"

Two critics discuss "Introduction," the latest film from the prolific Hong Sang-soo, which recently premiered at the Berlinale.
Evan Morgan, Sean Gilman
SEAN GILMAN: I had a particularly Hongian experience as I readied myself to write this first dispatch to you, Evan, about Introduction. Right after finishing the movie, I took a brief nap. This is a regular part of my pre-writing process: the twenty minutes of calm and quiet help me organize my thoughts, and the dreaminess helps with my creativity. I had the whole thing planned and written out in my head. I assure you it was brilliant, funny and clever and insightful. Then when I woke up, I had forgotten all of it. Not just what I was going to write, but the movie itself was gone. I’ve been trying to piece it all back together over the past 24 hours, and in doing so I’ve been wondering if this is a bit like how Hong constructs his films in the first place. It’s well-documented that he writes each day’s scripts early in the morning, giving them to the actors and then shooting that day and otherwise more or less making his films up as he goes along. Is it possible he thinks about the scripts as he sleeps at night and then forgets them upon waking? Are his final films merely fragmentary, incomplete attempts at recapturing those perfect ideals he dreamt.
There are so many dream sequences in Hong’s films, of course, including one in Introduction. What makes them unique is how indistinguishable they are from reality, or at least the version of reality as it exists in Hong Sang-soo movies. As they unfold, it’s impossible to tell whether what is actually happening is dream or reality or sometimes an alternate version of reality (there are, as he says, “infinite worlds possible”). Ideals and figments constantly invade and undermine the tangible reality of Hong’s cinema: dreams, but also movies and movie scripts (Oki’s Movie, In Another Country, Tale of Cinema), gossip (Yourself and Yours, Claire’s Camera, On the Beach at Night Alone), legends and stories (On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, Hahaha), and even (mis-)perceptions about other people (how many Hongian men are driven crazy by what they’ve convinced themselves is love for the “ideal” woman). Is Hong’s quotidian approach, the stripping away of classical film vocabulary and traditional plot structures, a rearguard action, a last stand in this war for the real against the imagined? And if so, can the paradoxical fact that Hong’s movies are themselves constructed fictions, as unreal as dreams, be greeted with anything other than a despairing chuckle and another shot of soju?
But like an old drunk guy who can only keep one eye open as he rambles, I’ve lost the plot. This is supposed to be an introduction to Introduction. It’s a sixty-six minute long movie in three parts, the first two roughly equal in length to the third. It’s a network narrative about two generations. A young man goes to meet his father, a doctor, but doesn’t get to see him because he’s with another patient, a famous actor. A young woman, the man’s girlfriend, goes to Berlin with her mother, who introduces her to Kim Minhee, with whom the girl is to live while she studies fashion. Sometime later, the young man’s mother introduces him to the famous actor. There’s a drunken argument and a dream sequence and a swim in the ice-cold ocean. The interrelations between people and the timeline of the plot, such as it is, reveal themselves slowly, organically. But since they do in the end reveal themselves, it ends up being a tighter and more explicable film than Hong’s other recent work (Grass, Hotel By the River, The Woman Who Ran). Which isn’t to say it’s more simple than those films, but rather that, at first glance at least, it seems to me that there are fewer spaces within Introduction to get lost.
But what do you think? Is this Hong’s most complete film since Right Now, Wrong Then (or maybe The Day After)? Or is this another half-remembered dream, sensible more by feeling and intuition than logic?
EVAN MORGAN: Unlike you, Sean, I encountered Introduction without allowing myself much room to dream: we’re now five correspondences and thousands of words into this project, and I must admit that I approach each new Hong film with a certain dread, fearing that after already spilling so much ink on his work, I’ll find myself having little left to say; consequently, I greeted Introduction in the same manner that I did the last few Hongs, with sleeves rolled up, with notebook in hand, hoping to conquer my anxiety with unblinking attention. Perhaps that’s appropriate for a movie as suffused with the cold hard light of day as this, Hong’s most relentlessly diurnal film in some years. Then again, clarity—of narration, of thought—is not obviously a virtue of Hong’s cinema, and so while I agree that Introduction feels rather transparent when compared to his other recent work, I am inclined to understand that transparency as consonant with simplicity.  Indeed, “explicable” is the word that came to mind for me, as it did for you: looking at my notes again, and squinting to read my illegible handwritten scrawl, I see that midway through the film I jotted down “psychologically explicable” in the margins, even providing a slanted underline for emphasis. But after hearing about your nap, in which you surrendered your consciousness to the obscure kingdom of sleep, I’m now wondering if my note, rather than emphasizing a quality inherent to the film and its characters, instead underlines my own commitment to a kind of daylit coherence. As a critic, it might be that I know myself too well. But can I really say the same of Hong’s people?
That seems an especially relevant question for Introduction, a film whose very title draws our attention to what is and what is not revealed upon an initial encounter. So let me linger for a moment on my first impressions of Shin Seokho, the actor who plays Yuongho—the young man at the film’s center—and who, despite a few minor credits in previous Hong films, appeared a new face to me. And I suppose I do mean that rather literally. With his big eyes and boyish, even cherubic features, Shin cuts a figure that contrasts with the Hong men of old, puppyish where they are hangdog, tender where they are testy. He’s the youngest person at the center of a Hong film in at least ten years, possibly more, and his youth points to the action with which Introduction is principally concerned. As you point out, Sean, this is a story of two generations, but unlike Hotel by the River, about which we might say the same, the children here are, if not literal minors, much closer to the bloom of youth than are the definitively middle-aged sons of Hong’s earlier film. That creates a notable psychological shift, introducing (that word again…) a new cohort to the world of Hong’s movies, one which, by all appearances, suffers from desires and defects different from those that plagued the preceding generation of Hong characters, whose salad days were roughly coeval with the director’s own. Youngho treats his girlfriend with notable sweetness; when he follows her to Europe, he does so without a hint of the entitled possessiveness that might have motivated his forerunners to do the same. In social settings, he’s well-mannered and polite; when he meets the famous actor over lunch, he and his buddy repeatedly turn away from the actor as they drink their soju, enacting a gesture common to Korean drinking culture, which is meant to communicate deference in the presence of elders, but which I can’t recall seeing in a Hong film before, despite innumerable opportunities. And pointedly, after the soju is consumed, when the inevitable drunken outburst arrives, it’s the older man who embarrasses himself. Youngho, for his part, respectfully steps outside. If, as I think I’m suggesting, we take this young man as an avatar for a new generation of Koreans, one that grew up amid greater wealth, with more middle class moral conventions and more egalitarian social values, then I think Introduction is indeed quite explicable, its narrative clarity the result of Hong encountering a young man relatively free from personal tumult, who is at ease with himself and with the world—or at least more so than Hong was at his age.
And yet I’m ill at ease with this approach myself. For one thing, it feels odd to ascribe to Hong an almost anthropological interest in cultural change; it allies him too closely with the forces of the real, to use your phrase, Sean. For another, it brushes past those things that Hong chooses not to reveal to us: Youngho’s relationship with his father, the circumstances under which he and his girlfriend broke things off, his attempts at kick-starting an acting career. But try as I might, I cannot find in those gaps the fictive potential that typically attends to Hong’s structural mysteries. I keep turning Introduction over in my mind in an attempt to find some desirable flaw that might bend the clear, unceasing winter light for a moment, that might throw the film into a generative kind of darkness, into my own dreams. Then again, I’ve always been bad at taking naps. The real keeps winning out. I feel rather like that woman at the beginning who asks Youngho’s father, “Why won’t it get better?” only to have the doctor reply, “It might just be your constitution.”
GILMAN: I don’t know that I would describe his interests as anthropological, but it’s undeniable that Hong is particularly interested in social mores and conventions and his filmography might well be described as a rolling 25 year portrait of a certain class of Korean manhood. Though it's important to admit that, not being Korean myself, much of the specificity in that portrait is a blank space for me, colored in by what I imagine are analogous facets of my own generation. I was distressed to realize, after watching Introduction, that Hong is now 60 years old, but I suppose time moves forward for everyone, even Hong Sang-soo. I suppose it’s inevitable then that his characters age along with him, or at least the characters in his films that take on the kind of identities that incline us to designate them as Hong surrogates.
This has been happening slowly over the past several years. In the early 2010s, Hong’s heroes were still young people, in college or freshly out of it, juggling the first phases of romance. Older characters have been gradually introduced, but always as supporting figures (for example the mothers played by Minari’s Youn Yuh-jung in Hahaha and In Another Country, or the professors in Oki’s Movie and Our Sunhi). The Woman Who Ran strikes me as a middle-aged film, where Kim Minhee tours through other people’s lives, in the way one does in comfortable domesticity (though Kim is not yet 40, barely older than Hong was when he made his first film). Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is in some ways about parenthood, but from the child’s perspective. Hotel by the River provides a nice contrast with that film, as not only are the children older, they are much less the focus. In Hotel, our attention is always with the father, opaque and unfamiliar though he is at times. We instantly identify Yoo Junsang and Kwon Haehyo, playing his two sons, as the Hongian figures in the movie, if only because they’ve starred, together and apart, in so many of his films, but they’re so much less interesting than their father. Is it, like Haewon, a film about being abandoned by your parent (say the end stage of that relationship, rather than the beginning), or is it about a father attempting to atone for abandoning his children? Perhaps this explains the curious instability of the film, it’s like Hong himself has been pulled apart across the generational divide—he wants to continue being the middle-aged son, but he feels more like the elderly father.
Introduction then resolves this generational split by firmly positioning the Hongian figures as part of the older group. Not just the actor with his drunken outburst, but the two mother-figures and Kim Minhee in her wispiest performance yet, floating in as a protector of the young woman. This is partially why I don’t quite consider the older actor to have embarrassed himself with his outburst about the young man’s inability to act a love scene because he believes it would be unfaithful to his real-life girlfriend, though for sure Youngho feels that way. So many Hongian heroes have of course embarrassed themselves with loud and aggressive behavior, but this speech in particular has the rare quality of being both honest and correct, much like Kim’s drunken freakout in On the Beach at Night Alone (which might have been a dream, I don’t remember, but it doesn’t matter). These kids today, with their upside down conflations of fantasy and reality, where the intangible is more meaningful than the physical, deserve every bit of scorn the wisdom of age can give them. Every embrace is sacred, which is maybe something an earlier Hong hero would have used to justify his own infidelity, but it means something different here I think. Regardless, it’s a dumb reason to give up on being an actor, and it is absolutely right that Youngho be admonished for it. The speech throws him into a dream sequence, and the ocean wakes him up. Not quite a baptism to bookend his father’s prayer that opens the film, but maybe a new beginning.
Or maybe I’m reading too much of my own issues with aging and parenthood into this film. What do you think, as someone who is about as much younger than me as I am younger than Hong, is this a film for the youth, or for the olds?
MORGAN: I may be younger than you, Sean, but this was the first time watching a Hong film where I felt distinctly older than the central figures myself, and perhaps my difficult experience with the film is, in fact, simply my own discomfort at recognizing that fact. Though we might argue—our own hang-ups aside—that the film primes us for just such a recognition: as you allude to, Introduction begins not with Youngho but with his father, who we encounter at his work desk, turned away from us, praying to God for a second chance. Viewed from behind, the actor looks strikingly like Hong; for a brief moment, I thought the director was putting himself on screen for the first time. Of course Hong has never resorted to a gesture so baldly autobiographical as an authorial cameo, and there was no reason to expect one here. Still, opening Introduction with a plea for personal renewal, spoken by a middle-aged doctor who looks vaguely like Hong, and who will shortly attend to an ailing patient, seems to arouse the specter of lost opportunities, bad decisions that can’t be remade, the inevitable deterioration of the body. In short, the anxieties of advancing age.
But to answer your question more directly, I’m not sure that we can say this is a film for the olds, even if we begin with them and their worries. Your identification of Kim as a kind of protector figure seems important; it’s a role that she occupies, but which is crucially not hers alone. In each of the three parts, a young person is granted bit of guidance by an older acquaintance: in the first, Youngho is told by his father’s assistant that he ought to stop smoking and maybe gain a little weight, banal but probably not bad advice; in the second, Kim offers up a casual maxim to Youngho’s girlfriend, assuring her that “life needs a little impulsiveness”; in the third, we get the actor’s righteous upbraiding of Youngho. The last of these, however, does not scan to me as obviously useful instruction, not only because the actor delivers it rather brutishly, but because he disregards the essence of the young man’s predicament. In attempting to take up acting, Youngho has discovered that the profession demands that he be other than what he is. He chose the wrong career, clearly, but he does not require admonishment for his mistake, any more than he needs prayers for a second chance—he’s young enough to have many more than that. Given the suffocating air of disappointment and decay that opens the film, I think we can say that what Youngho needs is, simply, some space.
And when he wanders out onto that frigid strand at the conclusion, Hong offers him precisely that. With his mother banished to her hotel room far in the distance, Youngho is free to contemplate the wide horizon laid out before him, even to dive into the freezing ocean waters—a decision that a responsible parent might reasonably advise against. Like other climatic beach trips in Hong, feelings of liberation and melancholy wash over the scene in equal measure, alternating currents that push against any definitive reading one might attempt to stake out, about Youngho’s future, about Introduction’s final meaning. But whatever remains unsettled in the churn, I think we can say that these scenes—given their routine placement at the end of Hong’s movies—point the characters, point us, outward from the narrative, to something beyond the film.
As you know Sean, I’m always on the lookout for Hong ephemera, those little doodles that crop up around the features, like the bumpers he shoots for film festivals that host his work, or that one Hong branded T-shirt, or his self-evidently homemade trailers, about which I once wrote an entire piece. So naturally I was delighted to learn that after Introduction won the Berlinale best screenplay prize, Hong submitted a two-minute thank you video to the programmers consisting of a brief note and an image of a snail slowly sliding over some rocks, scored to an a capella rendition of “Que Sera Sera”, courtesy of Kim Minhee. For most filmmakers this kind of thing would warrant at most a passing mention, would be treated—rightly—as a scribble tossed off between real projects. But Hong’s working methods are such that I see no good reason to distinguish between the margins and the center, and I’ve often found the subtle shifts in his work expressed as powerfully by the scribbles as by the texts themselves—maybe more so. What really struck me about this latest contribution to the Hong curiosity cabinet—what moved me, even—was its absolute directness, its unembarrassed emotional purity, like that of an worn-out old pop song once made famous by Doris Day. And I began thinking again about the last few Hong films, each of which I’ve found faintly disappointing upon an initial encounter, and my frustrated attempts to unearth in Introduction complications—narrative, psychological, personal—where there were perhaps few to be found. There is, I suspect, a certain youthful reverence for complexity, for the worldliness and sophistication it confers on artist and critic alike—and a hard-won wisdom in learning to renounce it. So whatever I have failed to say about Introduction, about Hong’s recent work more generally, when I contemplate that straightforward young man on the beach, standing upright amid the clear light of day, I am certain that this artist’s work has, with time, proven increasingly wise.

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Hong Sang-sooBerlinaleBerlinale 2021Festival CoverageDialogues
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