“Living is dying”—such are the words of advice Haewon’s mother offers her beautiful daughter before leaving. They have not seen each other for five years, and now Haewon’s mother is emigrating to Canada, where Haewon’s brother lives. Her father never appears on the screen, yet it is apparent that Haewon is left completely alone—she is nobody’s daughter now.
Hong Sang-soo’s fourteenth feature (his next one Our Sunhi is already finished and coming soon in Locarno competition) is an eponymous film. He rarely uses the names of the characters in his film titles, the only exceptions being Oki's Movie and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (originally titled Oh! Soo-jung). Hong is one of those directors who like to explore human nature, and his pictures offer a lively collection of characters who are awkward, goofy and gawky the way only real people can be. And gawky they are: recall the lifeguard from In Another Country, or the male lead in Tale of Cinema who never seemed to know what to do with his hands. The title stresses once again that Haewon is special. Her film school co-eds say that no one likes her; she is of mixed-blood; she spent her childhood moving from one country to another. She, too, seems not to know what to do with her slender, graceful arms—she’s always trying to embrace or hug someone, even people who only exist in her dreams, like Jane Birkin, who appears lost among the streets of Seoul. While Haewon admires Jane’s daughter, with her own mother she laughs awkwardly to fill a pause, talks nonsense because she has nothing to say, and imitates a model strutting on the catwalk to avoid silence.
In her interview after the shooting of In Another Country, Isabelle Huppert said that Hong Sang-soo’s method remains a mystery to her: until the last possible moment, he would not show the actors the finished script, improvising and writing new scenes right before filming. This is however hard to notice at a first glance since his pictures are always complex and intricately constructed. An analysis of his new film inspires charting down the geographical locations, keeping a record of repeating themes, and pointing out the bridges possibly connecting the heroine’s dreams to reality and vice versa.
As is usual with Hong Sang-soo, the disposition of forces is hinged upon a dysfunctional couple. Haewon, studying to be an actress, is involved in a torturous, intermittent affair with Lee, a director who teaches at her film school and is married with a child. The affair is kept secret, which is quite comical because everyone around seems to know about it. When her mother leaves, Haewon calls Lee—who else? It is only natural. Hong is often criticized for creating characters too closely related to the film industry, especially of late—a ludicrous complaint, given that the director’s penchant for dealing with a well-known environment merely allows him to save time when creating the background for his stories; Hong’s films are, of course, profoundly anti-cinephile, if cinephilia is interpreted as fondness for cinematic allusions.
Nobody's Daughter Haewon is certainly not a film about “relationships;” a couple is presented in the film, but we are not watching a romantic comedy or a melodrama. The two promo stills released for the film’s Berlinale premiere offer the most accurate critical interpretation. Both taken at the same spot, one of them shows Professor Lee sitting alone on the bench shortly before he lowers his head to his knees and bursts into tears; in the other, he is sitting on the same bench hugging Haewon (which is the film’s finale). Part of Hong’s appeal is the simplicity which overlays incredibly complex, remarkably sophisticated films; these two images get at the core of Noboby’s Daughter Haewon directly: appearances and disappearances. Haewon’s mother had never really been present in her life, yet her departure finalizes Haewon’s loss and marks her first encounter with the fact of someone’s utter, annihilating disappearance, bringing her to the realization that people can fade away and leave familiar world permanently. Her mother had not been there for her physically, and yet the space around Haewon was defined by her existence. The absence of parents allows her to experience a void. In The Egyptian Stamp, Osip Mandelstam refers to a similar feeling when he writes, “He approached raised bridges which reminded him that everything must abruptly end; that void and chasm can be quite a commodity; that separation will come, it will indeed; that deceptive levers move magnitudes and years.” Hong’s film thus boasts an unusual concentration of death-related jokes. In yet another argument with her lover, Haewon advises him to stop worrying—after all, with time everything will pass, come to an end and wear thin; death shall resolve all, including their problems.
By the same token as Mandelstam who employs raised bridges for a metaphor, Hong Sang-soo engages as actors not only words—a rare occurrence in contemporary cinema that has lost the ability to speak—but things as well. They make up yet another distinct category of principal characters: a cigarette butt appearing thrice in the same spot, a broken piece of a fence, a statue. Hong presents the idea of abandonment through the things we abandon. On a walk with Haewon, her mother shows her the school she used to attend; the sequence is cut with a shot of a statue that had stood there since times immemorial, while Haewon’s mother was still a child and Haewon did not yet exist. Another location is the historical Namhansanseong Park, laid out upon the remains of a 17th century fortress, which Haewon visits with Professor Lee. There, on a cassette player, they listen to Allegretto, the famous second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, performed for the first time at a charity concert for soldiers and inspired by folk music; two centuries later, it becomes the musical soundtrack to the characters’ love-induced emotional anguish. This transformation resonates with the fate of the former fortress, left to fall into decay until it was turned into a park 50 years ago. As opposed to people, material objects, these guests from the past, are able to change their functions while retaining some traces of their original aura.
The conversation touches upon the founding of the fortress, of which nothing remains but stones that still remember its builders. The recurrent theme of physical, material human products that naturally outlive their creators is intrinsic to only one director that I can think of, Manoel de Oliveira. In almost all of his films, with the rarest exception, he uses shot/reverse-shots with monuments, statues and figurines, presenting them as fully legitimate characters capable of offering emotional support, sympathy and consolation to the human cast (this signature touch is omnipresent, whether it’s Le soulier de satin, Belle toujours, O Gebo e a Sombra or even a five-minute anecdote in the omnibus Centro Histórico.) What will remain after Professor Lee is gone? He recounts: his films; other people’s memories of him (the most ephemeral thing); his child. Likewise, nobody’s daughter Haewon, who has chosen an illusory, immaterial profession of an actress, remains when someone else is gone, yet it is so hard to stay where the school her mother used to go to is just around the corner.
All of these ideas are additionally reaffirmed by the very existence of Hong Sang-soo’s film with its unique style and structure. Haewon often falls asleep, and some fragments of the film take place in her dreams, yet it is hard to tell where they begin or end—the director shoots dreams and reality in exactly the same way. Her encounter with Jane Birkin is obviously a dream: it is bookended with shots of Haewon falling asleep and waking up. The second time she drops off is in the library while reading a book, approximately in the middle of the film. Once again, we see her wake up, yet this shot marks a crossroads. The most plausible way to read the rest of the film is to conceive it as a dream since the final shot shows us, once again, Haewon waking up in the same library over the same book. Another telltale sign: before falling asleep, Haewon keeps a diary and records all the dates but afterwards she suddenly stops doing it. And finally, the entire second half of the film is a paraphrase of real events we have already seen in the first half—as it usually happens in dreams. Once again, just like the time Haewon walked with her mother, she finds herself by a wrecked fence that looks just like before, with the broken fragment in exactly the same position; she walks past the same cigarette butt, and meets a professor from the U.S. at the entrance to the same bookstore, in the same circumstances as in the very beginning of the film when she ran into a stranger: a casual encounter that led to nothing. The scene in the park happens all over again, with echoing lines of dialogue. Finally, the professor from the U.S. calls Martin Scorcese, thus mirroring the dream-sequence with another film celebrity, Jane Birkin.
Does this particular point matter? Is there a simple answer to what is dream and what is “reality”? Yes and no. Hong Sang-soo consciously includes fragments that evade unambiguous interpretation in almost every film he makes. For instance, In Another Country consists of three short stories written by an apprentice scriptwriter, depicting three different women named Anne who find themselves in the same circumstances, all of them played by Isabelle Huppert. The stories could be perceived as variations on the same theme, yet they are interconnected by various objects (just like in Nobody’s Daughter): a shard of a soju bottle the protagonist finds on the beach at the second minute of the film reappears being thrown by another Anne character later on, and the last Anne in the end takes out an umbrella providently left by the previous heroine. One could try placing the three stories in chronological order, but however you line them up, they would not connect – unless there is a time loop. I tried once asking Hong about it, but he got away with a sly “I don’t know.”
His most complex film, the theoretical Tale of Cinema, is also shot in a way that makes it is impossible to tell a film-within-a-film from “reality,” just as it’s impossible to tell dreams from non-dreams in Nobody’s Daughter. Time loops and mysterious appearances of objects haunting the story like the cigarette butt that turns up again on the same street—lead us to the most complex dimension of Hong Sang-soo’s filmmaking: the idea of an infinite variability of people, things and situations (the director’s body of work itself, with its recurrent themes and storylines, is a magnificent realization of it). There is one more cigarette-related scene: we see three of Haewon’s men—her lover, the dreamt-up professor and the stranger—light up near the bookstore entrance in exactly the same manner. Anyway, why try to separate the oneiric space from the real one while watching a film, work of art involving fictional people in fictional circumstances, whether be things are “real” or “dreamt up” within the film itself? Haewon, too, has been dreamt up by Hong Sang-soo. In the end, the film itself is a material capturing of variable people in space, which, thanks to the camera and editing, becomes a real creation that outlives these people. Cinema is an art of flickering light, an art of short-lived projection of something that will soon disappear on the screen.
The book that Haewon is reading is The Loneliness of the Dying by Norbert Elias, a German sociologist who, also, belonged to no one—he was born in Wrocław, taught in Frankfurt-am-Main, fled from Hitler to London, then lived in Africa. He wrote The Loneliness of the Dying when he was 85, seven years before his death. This thin brochure, less than a hundred pages long, ends with a sentence which sounds like a summary of Nobody’s Daughter Haewon: “Death hides no secret. It opens no door. It is the end of a person. What survives is what he or she has given to other people, what stays in their memory. If humanity disappears, everything that any human being has ever done, everything for which people have lived and fought each other, including all secular or supernatural systems of belief, becomes meaningless.” Haewon fell asleep and never finished reading the book, but after all she once said that there is no point in learning acting since simply living one’s life is more than enough. Perhaps, then, she has even less a need for books to teach her how to live or die.