This is my first piece on Korean director Hong Sang-soo, written on the occasion of the release of A Tale of Cinema. Originally published in Asia Pacific Arts.
Hong Sang-soo has found a clever and endlessly fertile narrative strategy for exploring his world of coincidences, humiliations, and emotional transcendence. In each of his six features to date, Hong tells us two stories in each, not by cross-cutting them a la Robert Altman but by laying them one after the other, such that the A and B stories play off of each other enigmatically and abstractly rather than in clearly-defined contrasts or edited juxtapositions. In The Day a Pig Fell into the Well and The Power of Kangwon Province, characters mentioned in the first story emerge in the second, not only giving an additional dimension to the characters and plot, but also evoking the deathly connections between friends and strangers, culminating in both films with mysterious and cruel deaths. In Woman is the Future of Man and Turning Gate, the two stories represent a past and a present, and the way characters repeat or contradict their misogynies, gestures, lines, or emotional tics from story A to story B tell us all we need to know about their motivations and tragic flaws. For a while, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors featured Hong’s most experimental dual narratives by playing a young woman’s gradual deflowering from two Rashomon-like perspectives, but that film’s status has now been overtaken by Hong’s newest: the formally flashy, and surprisingly warm A Tale of Cinema, which juxtaposes the story of a young director and the victim of his stalkerish aspirations, with a deathly funny film-within-a film of Solondz-esque proportions.
This structure works because Hong is especially good at repetition, or at least the illusion of repetition. In A Tale of Cinema, the repetition of the words “Let’s die together” (the coldest line of pillow talk imaginable) by the young director parallels the same line at the center of the short film which begins A Tale of Cinema. But rather than simply saying that life imitates art, Hong seems to be showing how cinema becomes the mental bedrock of everyday life; our earthly desires entangle with our cinematic ones in strange and often ugly ways. In Turning Gate, it’s the same love story played twice, only the term “I love you,” an empty signifier scholar Kyung Hyun Kim sees as central to Hong’s cinema, takes on different meanings when uttered in each section. The tragedy at the end of the film isn’t the protagonist’s romantic rejection, but the irony of “I love you” as it is played out in the two stories. The near-repetitions in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors don’t just show variations on the same story, it conjures to the fore the plot’s sinister shadow, revealing the male chauvinism and sexual domination lurking beneath what at first seemed like simply one of the many threesomes in Hong Sang-soo’s oeuvre. In A Tale of Cinema, the formal style of the short film which opens the film — namely the dramatic zoom-ins and voice-over narration which have never before been encountered in Hong’s films — is repeated in the “real” portion which follows the short film. Tricking us into thinking that these cinematic devices were characteristics of the film-within-the-film, and then repeating these devices when we think we’re back in Hong’s usual territory of static silence, Hong further blurs the line between fact and fiction.
There are also repetitions between films. Most famous are Hong’s use of rowdy drinking scenes shot in long takes and his depictions of gritty, static, discomforting, and erotically stale sex which frequently results from the drinking. Drunkenness plays a crucial role in Hong’s stories. On an obvious level, drinking provides the catalyst for confrontation, leading to scenes of humiliation for which Hong is most famous. At the powerful climax of Woman is the Future of Man, drunk characters dance, stumble, fellate, betray, mumble, and humiliate in a literal orgy of dissatisfaction. However, drinking is more than a narrative convenience; it gathers meaning by being depicted as the most primal of social rituals. These scenes are so animalistic that the sex scenes look mechanical in comparison. In The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, the customs of social drinking enable collisions of personalities and desires, culminating almost inevitably in violence. In that film and in A Tale of Cinema, pressures to toast each other in pairs — depicted in the most uncomfortable of long takes — forces characters into compromised situations. This also mirrors the pressures of singing karaoke during drinking which are also evident in those two films. In The Power of Kangwon Province and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, the very social-ness of drinking — the gathering of friends and colleagues — coupled with the debilitating effects of alcohol, turn petty private bickering into painfully public displays of embarrassment. By A Tale of Cinema, Hong and his audience have become conscious of these effects of social drinking in Hong’s films to the point of self-consciousness: one character tells another, “Don’t get drunk please; let us know if you’re going to get drunk,” as if it’s painfully clear to all parties involved that drinking could only lead to disaster.
If alcohol is the tonic for chaos in Hong’s films, it’s in that lingering hangover which follows that Hong’s characters typically dwell. There’s no better exemplification of this than the final sequence of A Woman is the Future of Man, where friends disperse to literally wander the city, not to “find themselves” or gather their bearings, but to simply walk off that blistering headache convoluted by memories of dashed hopes and regretful despair. At the end of A Tale of Cinema, a film actress runs into the man with whom she had just had a cold sexual encounter the night before. She’s casually trying to figure out his intentions, not because she wants to know if he’s worth continuing a relationship with (clearly he’s not), but so she can more easily shake off the bitter memory of their lustless fuck.
It’s fascinating, then, that so many of Hong’s characters are filmmakers or actors. What is Hong trying to convey by thrusting film people into the cruelties of disappointment, embarrassment, impotence, and disillusion? Is there a connection between this and the fact that Hong is a financially unsuccessful art house director in a country of big-named blockbusters? After all, the issue of art versus commercial cinema does get raised in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. More importantly, much of the tension in Hong’s films is related to the egos of film artists. The fighting in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors comes from an argument between filmmakers over a stolen camera. The tragedy in Turning Gate is set in motion when a film actor begins to pursue a beautiful female fan. In A Tale of Cinema, a failed director becomes dangerously obsessed with a rising star. The main character in Woman is the Future of Man goes to America to become a filmmaker and in the process spurns the woman who loves him; when he comes back to Korea a failure, he thinks he can simply re-claim his ex-lover. These filmmakers and actors (at least the male ones) are studies in moral and emotional vacuousness to say nothing of their chronic helplessness in the realm of romance. If cinema is the future of man, let’s drink to lowered expectations.