An exploration of Hong Sang-soo's films ahead of Edinburgh Filmhouse season
Tony McKibbin examines the relationship dynamic in Korean filmmaker's celebrated films
Hong Sang-soo films often focus on characters so deeply in crisis that they cannot help but in turn generate crises in the very situations they find themselves in. They are not only crisis-ridden; they create a mise-en-scene of misery out of their own inability to function in life. A good example comes from Like You Know it All (2009), where a young woman details her emotional past over the dinner she is having with her older husband and a young director closer to her own age. Later she hooks up with the director only for the bedroom scene to degenerate into a disaster as he can’t stop talking, and eventually a fight ensues when others enter the room. Earlier in the film the director gets himself into a messy situation with a couple of admirers, getting drunk with two women, both of whom look interested in sleeping with him. When one of them violently throws up in the toilet; the other is happy that she is now in a better position to get the director.
Alcohol plays a role in a number of Hong’s films, most especially The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996). The combination of personal crisis colliding with the situation means that, when drink is added, a messy scene is likely to take place. In a dinner sequence early on in the film, the novelist central character persistently attempts to persuade a young woman to have another drink. Despite her insistence that she doesn’t want to, the man continues cajoling her to partake. He tries a moment later to get her to drink some more, after almost propositioning her and the man sitting next to her. As he is pouring the drink, the waitress’s tray spills over him and later outside he starts an argument with the waitress, which then turns into a fight between various characters.
In his recent Sight and Sound piece, Tony Rayns talks of lazy comparisons with Eric Rohmer’s work; but would comparisons with Maurice Pialat be more astute? Like the French director of Loulou, To Our Loves and Police, Sang-soo is interested in how subjective states meet the social norm and how the norm is weak next to the characters’ perspectives. In The Turning Gate (2002) all the four leading characters act inappropriately because of their lack of emotional control. These are irrational characters in the sense that they believe their own emotional and psychic condition is more important than the social environment they find themselves in. Occasionally they do manage to assert the socio-ethical over the emotional, as in The Turning Gate where the wife appears to return to her husband, but often the characters are lost in a fog of their own feelings. Nobody more than the director in Woman on the Beach (2006), who cannot forgive a woman he has recently slept with for once having sex with a European man, and thus somehow undermining his own sexuality.
Also like Pialat, Hong is very interested in the ‘real’, the chance element that breaks the filmic world, that allows for the actors and the locations to work into the film. As Rayns says “…the making of the film becomes a process of discovery rather than the execution of a pre-arranged plan.” Yet though Rayns says this approach is a break from the earlier, more formally rigorous work, we would be better to ignore the production methods, and see that whether the work is formally arranged or contingent, the result is often quite similar. The early films would include The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000); with the later films The Turning Gate, Woman on the Beach, Night and Day (2008) and Like You Know it All.
In most of the films there is a sense of aimlessness reflected in the style of the scenes, with characters not quite knowing what they are thinking or feeling, and while this provides the story little sense of urgency, the individual scene retains much potential suspense. In The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, the central character is often described by critics as a failed novelist, and there isn’t narrative drive in his attempt to become a successful one, but a high degree of tension in the scenes that show how he is dealing with failure. Even if the character is reasonably successful, like the director in Like You Know it All, Sang-soo is more interested in the lazy trajectory of his life as he moves from festival to festival, and the over-defensive way he justifies his work. In one scene, someone in the audience asks a question about the way he makes his films, and the director replies belligerently.
If much Korean cinema seems focused on physical violence, from The Isle to Old Boy, Sang-soo’s films, rather like some of the work of another ‘serious’ Korean filmmaker Lies director Sun-Woo Jang, is interested in intensity of feeling, and the paradoxical ambivalence involved. An emblematic Hong exchange comes in Night and Day, where a female character says to the man she has decided to love. “I’m tired of not being decisive about my feelings. So I really made up my mind to love you.” Another is in Like You Know it All, with the partner of the much older man listing her past, failed loves. It is a typical moment of confession, full of failure, resentment and bitterness. In The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, the failed novelist asks his lover if she is still having sex with her husband. She refuses to answer and gets up to leave. The novelists grapples with her abjectly and eventually they have sex. It is one of numerous messy sex scenes in Hong’s work, with characters caught in conflicts of feeling. One recalls the sex scene in Like You Know it All, mentioned above, that turns into a fight, and also one in Night and Day, where the male character who wants sex with the woman who merely requires a hug, says that he loves her, pushing her into further intimacy. In Woman on the Beach, as a couple lie in bed, the man remarks: 'my ex-wife had slept with my friend before we married.'
Hong Sang Soo’s films are as violent as any in Korean cinema, but this is an internal violence, with characters emotionally doing unto others what others are doing unto them, and thus creating an emotionally fragile universe where trust is a debased currency. Yet part of this distrust isn’t totally based on bad values, with characters treating each other with deliberate cruelty; often it stems from an ambivalence of feeling, or at least of expression. 'You asshole', one male character drunkenly says to another in The Turning Gate, before adding 'do you realize how happy I was to see you', and then giving him a huge hug and bursting into tears. Characters may be manipulative, egotistical, ambitious and selfish, but they aren’t usually cold. If the characters were too removed from their feelings, and playing with those of others, the sort of tension Hong searches out would be missed. As he says in a Cinemascope interview, “When I first conceive the idea for a film, I usually come up with a kind of everyday situation. For me it has to contain something that I just know instinctively that, if I dig into the situation, the result will reveal some of the tensions, dilemmas, the things I like to deal with.”
The Cinemascope interviewer Kevin B. Lee comments on the increasing use of the zoom in Hong’s more recent films, as if part of that improvisatory direction Rayns observes. It allows for the Altmanesque sense of curiosity towards the everyday, but perhaps with a crueller, more acerbic eye. In Like You Know It All, the central character is signing an autograph outside when we see someone standing and observing from across the road. Hong zooms abruptly, and the person crosses the road while the director describes this friend from the distant past as a ghost. There is another abrupt zoom; yet like the earlier one it doesn’t resemble its use in Robert Altman or Nicolas Roeg, where the directors push into the situation in very different ways, an endoscopic zoom voyeuristically searching out the most intimate aspect of the situation: a book someone is reading, an ankle bracelet, a tattoo, or whatever it might be. Hong’s are often truncated zooms, halting abruptly before moving in too close. It hints at intimacy but seems wary of revealing it, rather like the characters who can’t quite commit to their feelings, no matter the hysterical nature of their emotions.
“I am not the same person I was ten years ago”, Hong says. “Now I seem to think less of myself and more about what others think.” Yet his work has always been good, rather like Pialat’s, and for that matter Altman’s, at indicating a world beyond the immediacy of the situation, and the characters’ self-absorption. And more than Pialat and Altman, Hong Sang-soo is a director who brings out the humorous absurdity of an event. Let us think back to the restaurant scene early in The Day a Pig Fell into the Well. Here Hong doesn’t settle for one moment of social embarrassment, he piles them on top of the other. First the writer acts a little forward with a fellow diner, then the waitress spills the tray over him, and outside he starts to harangue the waitress for not apologizing. After that, after he is calmed down, he gets into another scrap with someone working at the restaurant.
This is comedy of embarrassment out of subtle characterisation. In between the tensions, another character says to our hero what he is afraid of, and he answers: life. Much the same could be said of many of Hong’s heroes; they don’t know how to live, so fear existence itself, and create absurd scenarios in which their incompetence becomes manifest. This doesn’t make for light comedy, but heavy comedy, with the humour coming not so much out of situational chaos as we find in the broadly comic, but out of the inexplicable nature of characters who keep confronting their demons by colliding with other people. Perhaps the key line in Hong’s work is one the central actor character offers twice in The Turning Gate. “Even if it difficult to be human beings, let’s not be monsters.” From this point of view Hong is probably the ‘deepest’ filmmaker working out of Korean film, a slight anomaly next to the more commercial directors for whom strong stories and genre boundaries bring in the sort of audiences Hong can’t hope to draw. He might say in interviews that he is more interested in what other people think than he used to be, but that fellow feeling hardly stretches to giving audiences too readily what they want. He remains one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers, a director alongside José Luis Guérin, Lucrecia Martel , Lisandro Alonso, Carlos Reygadas, Jia Zhangke, Philippe Grandrieux, and a handful of other newish directors, who remains alive to the moment of filming, and the complexities within the self. As philosopher Stanly Cavell might say, these are filmmakers interested in the intimacy of the small audience, as in Cities of Words he muses over the ‘total audience’, the sort of film that needs many millions of spectators to recuperate the budget, the “special effects spectaculars that have inundated Hollywood in recent decades”. In Hong and others the audience is certainly small, but the reach deep.