Our Boundaries, Our Selves - The Films of Hong Sang-soo

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By Adam Hartzell

 

"I want to make a film that satisfies me first, especially in terms of aesthetic qualities and in terms of truthfulness... If I can have 50,000 people who really like my film, and who can understand what I'm trying to deliver, then that suits me very well. Numbers are not really that important." - Hong Sang-soo, Interview with J. Scott Burgeson, Bug Vol. 3 (1998)

In an industry about which much has been spoken regarding numbers, the over 13 million who saw Bong Joon-ho's The Host in South Korea, the over 60% of South Korea's box office in 2006 that was taken by South Korean films, not to mention the constant battles within the country's screen quota system, director and screenwriter Hong Sang-soo's de-emphasis on numbers seems almost iconoclastic, if not unpatriotic. But Hong's is a very personal, intimate cinema. And despite the fact that the personal is only a YouTube video away, Hong's films have reached a very select audience who find his repetitions refreshing in what they say about the human condition - or better yet, how his characters disrupt expectations of the everyday social niceties of the conditioned human. His work disconcerts, forcing us outside the everyday through his unique constructs. Hong's films infect their hosts like any other monsters dreamed up from the Han River, yet rather than fantastically shocking and consuming, they gradually fascinate as thoughts and emotions build layer upon layer with each scene, with each film, with each consecutive viewing.

Born in Seoul in 1960, Hong studied filmmaking at Chung-ang University and pursued a BFA in the San Francisco Bay Area at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) before heading to the Midwest for an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. He began working for the South Korean television station SBS after a brief time studying at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. While working at SBS, he completed his first film, The Day a Pig Fell into the Well in 1996, which received much acclaim, winning the Best New Director award at the South Korean Blue Dragon Awards and the Dragons and Tigers Awards at the Vancouver International Film Festival. In ten years he would release seven films, the others being The Power of Kangwon Province - 1998, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors - 2000, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, or simply Turning Gate - 2002, Woman Is the Future of Man - 2004, Tale of Cinema - 2005, and Woman on the Beach - 2006, each of which will be featured in a first-time Retrospective of all seven works at the 25th San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival beginning March 15th through March 25th.

Hong's films are fun to pan if you don't care for them, as they have so much repetition and less than inspiring characters. But for those of us intrigued by Hong's instincts and insights, there is much to ponder in his work. For me, it was The Power of Kangwon Province that solidified my desire to focus my film-writing on South Korean cinema. This tale of two wrongs realizing they won't ever make a right, while still finding themselves drawn back to each other, could be seen as a cynical statement of the delusions of love. (And the tagline on the poster for Hong's latest film, Woman on the Beach, could be read as continuing this interpretation as well: "Love, an Overnight Illusion".) Yet oddly enough, I felt tremendously hopeful after my first Hong film experience at the San Francisco International Film Festival, walking out with a huge smile on my face that even a fellow departing viewer's sarcastic response of "That film won an award?!" couldn't ruin. (The awards my fellow attendee couldn't believe it won were Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Blue Dragon Awards, Special Jury Prize at Santa Barbara Film Festival, and Un Certain Regard Special Mention at the Cannes International Film Festival.)

The relationships of Hong's characters are pathetic in so many ways, yet, with simple nudges and stronger commitments, these relationships could have realized something greater than the sum of their two parts. Strange as it may seem to some - but not to Hong, whom I've mentioned this to - his films leave me with strong feelings of hope for relationships, which, by extension, leave me with strong feelings of hope for the world.

 

 

I feel a need to emphasize that Hong's films are not intended to represent the real world. They are conscious constructions. As he's said, "I make films based on structures I thought up." Still, the scenarios can surely be applied to our realities. The relationships he constructs on screen demonstrate not only how pathetic we can be in our actions, but even more so in our inactions. Hong's characters leave us questioning what at all could possibly matter to them when they are so willing to release relationships and self-understandings that are closely within their grasps. Relationships, jobs, even the simplest of plans to go somewhere are often self-thwarted at the last minute. Hong's films are not pleasurable in the sense we feel good watching these characters fuck-up. They are pleasurable in the sense that they get us to mull over their missed opportunities. Perhaps such efforts can allow us to inhibit future fuck-ups in our own lives.

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