And with the missed encounters comes the recurring messiness of sex scenes in Hong's films. Just like the relationships, the sex is not pleasurable but often painful, pointless, and so unnecessary to the point of being weirdly humorous. "Do you like my moves?" Kyeong-soo wrigglingly asks Seon-yeong in Turning Gate - to the laughter of Korean and non-Korean speakers in the audience. (Admittedly, some of Hong's humor is missed on non-Korean speakers, as evidenced by the laughter that has echoed around me throughout Hong's films at the Pusan International Film Festival.) Jae-hoon's consummating callouts to Soo-jeong in Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors cause discomforting laughter amongst more of the same audience. Hong's men are often naive in the ways of the flesh, a naivite encouraged by the stuttered, if not completely stalled, communication they have with their partners. Moon-ho of Woman Is the Future of Man doesn't realize woman shave their legs, while Jae-hoon is arguably oblivious to how painful ones first moment of penetration can be for a virgin such as Soo-jeong. This sexual inadequacy reaches its zenith in the emotional inadequacy that prohibits partnership, Hong's men choosing instead to not choose. Yet they never reactively run away, always walking away from one unrealized relationship to the next.
In this way Hong's films are all about negotiating boundaries, the boundaries of our bodies in particular, advancing and rescinding on offers to let someone in. This is further underscored by the often bipolar flirtations with clean and unclean. Witness Dong-woo's frantic reaction to the breaking of a condom after sex with a prostitute in The Day a Pig Fell Into The Well, or the suicide pact of the young lovers in the first part of Tale of Cinema that demands purity of each party, along with Dong-soo's fixation in the second half with the rumored scars covering Yeong-shil's body. This focus on purity, a focus that can only fail, represents vividly the lost cause of pursuing an ideal that can never exist in the real for life is messy, clumsy, painful, and awkward when lived actively. That is, when simply lived.
But of all the themes that resonate from Hong's moving pictures, there is none more attune to the contemporary state of America than the theme of doubting sincerity in this age of bullshit. Those who actually read Harry G. Frankfurt's best-selling re-issued treatise On On Bullshit rather than purchasing it, or having it purchased for them, as a joke, will recall that one of the reasons for the presence of what seems to be "so much bullshit" these days, besides the world's super power being run by a man whose complete M.O. is bullshit, is a heightened focus on "sincerity" in our age. To Frankfurt "sincerity itself is bullshit" because a belief that we can truly, completely know ourselves speaks an indifference to the reality that "our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial - notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things."
Frankfurt only needs to watch one Hong film, Turning Gate, to find support for his claim. Each declaration of Hong's characters must be taken with pillars of salt, and this experience is heightened in Turning Gate, where Kyeong-soo's words and actions growingly become suspect. An actor by trade, he is arguably a traitor by word. When he is caught in an explicit male gaze at a young woman's legs, he attempts to act away his guilt to perpetrate as if he were merely admiring a mundane poster on the restaurant wall. This scene stays with us as he walks out of a restaurant later only to exhibit strong improv skills by waving in an likely false memory in order to successfully bed Seon-yeong. But as much as there is bullshit spread by Hong's characters, there is also the elusive pursuit of syncing words with the emotions we believe lie behind them. Some of what appears to be bullshit is really the common failure of our words to ever emotionally bridge our selves so that they truly create the compound ourselves. Myeong-sook's histrionic prose, "Me in you; You in Me" later finds its way to Seon-yeong's pen, a plot connection that ironically causes character disconnection because what may have been a 'sincere' gesture of intimacy on Seon-yeong's part is tainted in doubt for Kyeong-soo and the audience reading the letter along with him. It's as if each moment of possible intimacy between characters elliptically walks away before even coming close to reaching full fruition.
And an ellipse is a wonderful way to summarize the experience of watching Hong's films. As much as we return to cyclical themes and dialogues, each scene and each film always ends with a cinematic "dot, dot, dot" to carry us onwards to the next scene, as if The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well were one long trip to the Woman on the Beach and whatever Korean holiday Hong will take us on next. Unlike his characters, I've committed to my relationship with the films of Hong Sang-soo for the long haul.
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