Looking at Life Through

Green-tinted Bottles of Soju:

Cinema of Hong Sang-soo


Blogger's note: Soju refers to the vodka-like Korean liquor ubiquitous in Hong's films which, no matter the brand, is always marketed in green glass bottles.

1960 turned out to be a pivotal year for South Korean cinema. At the peak of what is now referred to as the industry’s Golden Age, the year saw the release of fine films like The Housemaid by Kim Ki-young. However, it was also notable for another significant reason. It gave birth to two current acclaimed Korean filmmakers Kim Ki-duk (no relation to Kim Ki-young) and Hong Sang-soo, who would both grow up to make films that infuse a Gallic influence with homegrown sensibilities. But beyond the superficial similarities, the two filmmakers share little in common when it comes to cinematic vision. And even though Kim has won the meatier awards like the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival, in most critics’ eyes, Hong has claimed the role of the most substantive auteur in contemporary Korean cinema. While Kim’s films explore the grotesque in otherworldly settings, Hong’s films uncover the tawdry in quotidian settings, and in the process, test the very tensility of cinema as an art form in terms of both structure and content.

Hong was born and raised in Seoul and initially studied filmmaking at Chungang University before going to the US to earn a BFA from the California College of Arts and then an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. Then he headed to Paris to study at the Cinematheque Francaise, but came back to Korea after just a few months to work in television. In 1996, he released his award-winning debut feature The Day a Pig Fell into a Well, garnering much critical acclaim and establishing himself as a leading filmmaker.

The Day a Pig Fell into a Well gets its peculiar title from a John Cheever short story. But as with many elements in Hong’s cinematic world, the oblique moniker is left unexplained, and neither a pig nor a well appears in the film. But the work does document, through a four-part examination of each of its principal characters, the incipient stages of a new social epidemic--a literal dis-ease--that inflicts contemporary Korean society as a result of the rise of the petite bourgeoisie and the accompanying disintegration of traditional Confucian values. Noted critic Acquarello has astutely observed that Hong’s debut recalls “disenchanted and acutely tragicomic bohemianism epitomized by Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore". Indeed. But this film is not a direct descendant of Eustache‘s masterpiece. If any Korean film can claim a direct lineage to The Mother and the Whore, it would be the 1991 film Road to the Racetrack by the maverick director Jang Sun-woo. Made during the years of South Korea’s rise to prominence following the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Jang’s film provided a sobering antidote to the euphoric zeitgeist. It was a scathing critique of the new petite bourgeoisie whose members found themselves both indulgent and inert, caught between a new sexual freedom and the residual constraints of a puritanical Confucian society.

Hong Sang-soo himself has observed that he found himself amazed to see that “such movies were being made in Korea” upon his return from studying abroad. Jang Sun-woo, ever the peripatetic provocateur, has moved on to explore other themes in eclectic films, leaving Hong to assume the mantle of South Korea’s preeminent cinematic chronicler of the proliferation of this venal dis-ease. But whereas Jang’s film criticizes Korean society in a most overt polemical fashion, resulting in an exasperation that is explicitly expressed by the characters within the diegesis as well as felt by most viewers, Hong’s films prefer to mock its characters gently yet incisively, provoking viewers to uncomfortably chuckle along while engaged in self-reflection. For Hong, the most crippling malaise of modern Korean society is the aforementioned dis-ease--the inability of its men and women to form meaningful relationships. In fact, every one of Hong’s films could be synopsized as depicting “the uneventful misadventures of immature men with a sense of entitlement and the foolish women with a sense of desperation who put up with them.”

The Day a Pig Fell into a Well

Hong’s debut feature centers around a struggling narcissistic writer named Hyo-sub who, even though intensely disliked by his colleagues, somehow manages to have two lovers--a married woman and a young proofreader. The film is divided into four sections, one for each of these three characters and the married woman’s husband. In less deft hands, the film would end in a clichéd denouement that would bring the four together in some contrived fashion. What distinguishes this and all the other films in Hong’s oeuvre is his determination to preclude the seemingly familiar filmic elements from degenerating into clichés. This tendency often confounds uninitiated viewers, because it so steadfastly goes against the grain of the conventions of not just commercial but most art cinema as well. Like a vigilant physician tending to a patient, Hong stands alert, ready at a moment’s notice to inject therapeutic doses of reality whenever a carcinogenic cliché threatens to spread its malignant growth.

In a particularly telling scene, Hyo-sub lets his antisocial tendencies get the better of him after a waitress spills some food on him at a get-together. Instead of handling the minor event in a reasonable fashion, he tries to inflame it into a full-fledged brawl. To make a dramatic display, he breaks a beer bottle to wield it as a weapon, but only after a couple of pathetic, abortive, and ultimately comic attempts. And all of this inaction is presented in what the critic Sky Hirschkron has observed as “a strictly embryonic” visual sense. The camera is almost always static, and this stasis reflects the stunted emotional status of its characters. And throughout his career, Hong has tended to use conspicuously tall male actors, thereby highlighting their contrasting emotional dwarfism. Think of little Oskar from Volker Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum, adapted from the eponymous Gunter Grass novel. Hong’s male characters may have grown physically, but they rarely mature emotionally.

But if there is a true literary equivalent to Hong’s films, strangely as it sounds, it would be Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the eighteenth century English novel which employs a rambling anticlimactic plot told by an unreliable narrator whose uncle suffers from impotence. Towards the end of Pig, Dong-woo, the married woman’s husband, initiates sex with his estranged wife after wrongly concluding that he has not been cuckolded. Thus, the sex in the film is not a source of joy or passion or pleasure but a mere act of assurance which soothes the ego. It is not the actual sexual act that restores Dong-woo’s masculinity in his mind but what the act symbolizes. For Hong’s hapless characters, sex is not a necessary aspect of a healthy well-rounded lifestyle. As one of the male characters states in Hong’s Woman Is the Future of Man, “Korean men are too much into sex, because we have nothing, no culture.” The sex scenes in Hong’s films are neither fulfilling for the characters nor climactic for the narrative. They often feel more like awkward, obligatory, and unsatisfactory intercourse that does not culminate in a spectacular money shot. Like both the flat narrative and the uncooperative penis featured in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the plots of Hong’s films limp along, but in this process, divulge more about human nature than films that work towards more predictable and prescribed climaxes.

The one notable element in Hong’s debut which would disappear from his later works is the violence. It concludes with bloodshed perpetrated by the young female character’s jealous male coworker. This has been Hong’s lone dalliance with graphic violence, a welcome reprieve from the blood-drenched oeuvre of his colleagues like Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk. But other facets of The Pig--the focus on relationships, the difficulty of communicating, the unconventional structure--resurface in his other films. Jean Renoir once famously stated that “a director makes only one movie in his life, then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” Hong has certainly taken these words to heart, as he has literally and repeatedly deconstructed the same fundamental themes in his films, only to synthesize them, but always in varying and novel fashion.

The Power of Kangwon Province, Hong’s sophomore effort, employs for the first time what has become a trademark diptych narrative structure, in which the essential story is told twice. And then with his third film, Hong would make what many consider as his simultaneously most Gallic, iconic, and formally experimental film. Hong gave it the English title, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, a variation on the title of the famous Marcel Duchamp diptych painting, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. But for its Korean title, Hong went with the deceptively simple Oh, Soo-jung. However, Hong betrays his wry sense of humor as “Soo-jung” is not only a popular female Korean name that means “crystal”, but also a word that means “fertilization”.

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

Much of this film openly flaunts its French influence--the title, the tableau format, the intertitles, and the black-and-white cinematography. The film’s oblique narrative--based on what seem like faulty memories--is very much reminiscent of Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais. In “Alain Resnais or the Theme of Time”, John Ward notes that “Marienbad is a difficult film because of its plot which follows the highly subjective re-creation of the past in the mind of X.” If that is the case, Virgin Stripped bare by Her Bachelors is almost an impossible film because it employs two disparate yet similar halves which seem to follow two subjective re-creations. Furthermore, it is unclear as to whose memories are being jogged.

But what Hong has had to say on the other aspects of the film can give us a clue as to how to approach it. On his choice to use black-and-white cinematography, he has said that “color gives viewers more information than they need. A screen simplified in black and white, on the other hand, lets the audience concentrate on the characters and discern emotional changes without being disturbed by peripheral objects and environment.” From this, we can surmise that perhaps Hong wants to give us as little information as possible about the narrative as well. The one clear and overriding fact of both halves is that Jae-hoon, the wealthy but socially awkward thirty-something male protagonist, desperately employs all of his resources in a maddeningly fumbling effort to deflower Soo-jung, the twenty-something female protagonist whose crystalline nature is reflected not only in her name but also her virginal status. And again, the sexual pleasure itself is not the goal of the male protagonist. His goal is to attain the sense of power derived from taking Soo-jung‘s virginity. In the film’s second half, Jae-hoon makes a big ritual of washing the blood-stained sheets after he has deflowered her. This is not merely an act of cleaning the unsightly sheets, but a rather sad demonstration of his conquest.

Some have interpreted the first half of the film as Jae-hoon’s point of view, and the second half as Soo-jung’s, but this is still problematic because the second half ends on a wryly happy note as Jae-hoon and Soo-jung mate. The first half features more ambivalence on the part of Soo-jung and ends only with the insinuation that intercourse may have taken place. An alternative interpretation might be that the first half represents the actual course of events whereas the second half represents Jae-hoon‘s fanciful imagination. We can even go so far as to interpret these two narrative threads as representing merely two of infinite parallel realities--two possible manifestations of what can happen given the particular circumstances.

Employing a vibrant color palette and a camera that actually moves more than just a few times, Hong’s fourth effort, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, marks a return to the more naturalistic style of his first three films. In fact, the film represents a literal turning gate of sorts for the filmmaker, as it relates to the viewer without any ambiguity exactly what happens while still retaining Hong’s favored bifurcated structure. However, this does not mean that the film itself contains no ambiguities. Hong simply shifts them from the film’s narrative into the interior thought processes of the film’s characters. And this shift allows him to revisit his usual themes and preoccupations, but in a fresh way.

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate

If Virgin is Hong’s most iconic film, then Turning Gate may represent his most fully realized and expressive film. It follows Kyung-soo, a little-known actor in his thirties, and the two women he meets while visiting a male friend. Myung-sook, whom he meets and has sex with in the first half, desperately latches onto him, displaying a suffocating sense of neediness inevitably coupled with psychotic tendencies. This naturally drives him away, eventually into the arms of Sun-young, a self-professed fan who nevertheless initially keeps him at bay. They, too, eventually consummate their affair, and Sun-young’s unavailability as a married woman stokes in Kyung-soo a desire to pursue her more.

And with this film based on a mundane premise of two affairs with an eager yet psychotic girl and a desirable yet unavailable girl, Hong emerges as that most rare and mature filmmaker who has mastered the nearly impossible art of differentiating between the banal and the cliché. “I start with a very ordinary, banal situation, and this situation usually has something in it that makes me feel strongly. It’s a stereotypical feeling, but very strong. I have a desire to look at it…” Because Hong chooses to build up from the particulars, his films feel more organic and intimate, resulting in more relevancy, familiarity, and immediacy. Hong is really a synthesizer, who gathers disparate pieces of banality and weaves them into a three-dimensional painting that gives the patient viewer an insight into reality. With his powers of observation and storytelling, he elevates the inane and the mundane details into something transcendent. Inventing grand and contrived schemes is not what provides insight into human nature and behavior. Hong realizes that we can discover that insight from tilling the deceptively fecund soils of our collective quotidian. So he retells the same story, often from different perspectives. And in the end, we the fortunate viewers end up with films that stay faithful to Aristotle’s insistence that in a work of drama characters must stay true to human nature.

And in Turning Gate, Hong moves the camera more than ever to reflect the interior mood swings of the main character. After Kyung-soo meets Sun-young--whom unlike Myung-sook, he finds dynamic and compelling--the film which had theretofore been so visually restrained, suddenly comes alive, utilizing strategic camera pans and movements. The dialogues and the situations also achieve a nearly perfect naturalistic expression in this film. What was stylized before--the characters moved and sounded much like Bresson’s self-consciously dejected models in Virgin--is no more. Hong alternates between his usual medium shots of characters sitting and talking over drinks with the aforementioned camera movements. And more than ever, every detail of the mise-en-scene that may seem accidental has been placed by Hong with the deliberate surefootedness of a somnambulist.

As befitting a film so naturalistic in its storytelling, alcohol-induced conversations play a bigger role than ever. Even though Hong’s characters have always imbibed copious shots of soju--often as the only antidote to the dis-ease of incommunicability--Turning Gate is the film in which Hong seems to fully buy into the old adage of in vino veritas. Alcohol has become more than a mere social lubricant. It is, in fact, an usquebaugh--an ancient Irish Gaelic word meaning “water of life“ that eventually became the word whiskey. Some see life through a looking glass, others through rose-tinted glasses, and still others through half-empty glasses. Hong’s characters look at life through green-tinted bottles of soju. Perhaps the blurring of the reality is the only way in which the hopelessly immature self-centered men and the haplessly desperate self-victimizing women can deal with their plights.

Woman on the Beach

Woman Is the Future of Man and Tale of Cinema followed in 2005 and 2006, respectively. The former flirts with temporal shifts in narrative as two men pursue the affections of one woman, and the latter is Hong’s most self-reflexive work as it presents a two-fold narrative comprised of a film-within-a-film and a meditation on that very film. Then later in 2006, Hong made Woman on the Beach, a work that easily qualifies as his most optimistic and humorous. The subject is a familiar one broached by filmmakers--Jung-rae, a director struggling with a writer’s block, goes on a scenic trip with Chang-wook, a younger male friend, and Mun-sook, Chang-wook’s friend and love interest. While on this getaway, Jung-rae parlays his status to bed Mun-sook and then another woman named Sun-hee. The two short-lived affairs manage to cure the director of his inertia, but not before providing pitch-perfect laugh-out-loud scenes that illustrate the foolishness of men and women in contemporary Korean society.

In what must be the single most hilarious scene in Hong’s entire filmography, Jung-rae pettily grills Mun-sook on whether or not she dated foreign men while she studied in Germany. Not content to let Jung-rae wallow in the pettiness alone, Chang-wook gets upset, warning Mun-sook not to answer. But when she answers that she did indeed date a few foreign men, the conversation quickly devolves into something simultaneously cringe-worthy, riotously funny, and--most importantly--brutally insightful. Jung-rae launches into a pathetic verbal tirade: “Oh, they sure love Asian girls. They go crazy, even for the ugly ones.” Even after Mun-sook gives him a graceful way out with a gentle disagreement, he goes on indignantly, “It’s so damn unfair because the ugly ones go there and become popular!” As Mun-sook stares in disbelief and pity, he unwittingly embarrasses himself (and pointedly, the male Korean viewers) further by adding, “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because as a Korean man, I have a complex about the size down there…” But even though the women in Hong’s films fare slightly better than the men, they, too, are not immune to stupidity. Even after this ridiculous display on Jung-rae’s part, Mun-sook sleeps with him.

Although this film initially centers around Jung-rae and his writer’s block, it eventually shifts its focus to Mun-sook and her emotional growth. Much like The Green Ray by Eric Rohmer--to whom many have compared Hong--Woman on the Beach ends on an optimistic note, with its female protagonist getting out of her rut. Jung-rae completes his screenplay and goes back to Seoul. When he calls Mun-sook, she answers, “I think I really liked you more as a director… And I don’t want to repeat anything.” As Mun-sook, too, leaves the scenic coastal town, her car gets caught in the muddy sand. Two young men come to her rescue, literally helping Mun-sook find traction so she can go on with her life. She insists on paying them, but they steadfastly refuse. Perhaps, males--at least those of the younger generation--are not an altogether lost cause after all.

With both Night and Day--which still has not had a DVD release--and Like You Know It All, Hong has kept his diptych narrative structure while still not ditching his fundamentally cynical outlook on relationships. His upcoming film, titled Ha Ha Ha, features Moon So-ri, the gifted actress who won the best actress award at the Venice International Film Festival in 2002 for her performance in Lee Chang-dong‘s Oasis. It also reunites Hong with Kim Sang-kyoung, the charismatic lead from Turning Gate and A Tale of Cinema. Both the star power and the lighthearted title have cinephiles in giddy anticipation.

It is not death, genocide, war, birth, marriage, divorce, or any other life-changing event that gives meaning to Hong’s films. This, of course, leads some viewers to mistakenly conclude that his films are meaningless and boring. What they fail to realize is that an artful depiction of the ennui that is life itself…is not ennui. Hong simply finds his inspiration from the countless minutiae from the backgrounds of our collective memory. If his films lack in terms of an excitement quotient, they make up for it in a quotidian quotient. And within that high quotidian quotient are instances of epiphany. Truth--even brief glimpses of truth, for that matter--can be nearly impossible to attain, as the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs eloquently reminds us in The Theory of the Novel: “At very rare, great moments--generally they are moments of death--a reality reveals itself to man in which he suddenly glimpses and grasps the essence that rules over him and works within him, the meaning of his life.” But if the films of Jonas Mekas tell us that we can witness brief glimpses of beauty as we move ahead, the films of Hong Sang-soo tell us that we can experience brief moments of truth as we stumble along after a few bottles of soju.