By Adam Hartzell
The cinema of Hong Sang-soo "is very much a walking cinema in its pace, in its space for reflection, and in its elliptical nature, each ending leading us into the next film, or returning us to a film, or scene, that preceded it," writes Adam Hartzell, who explains why his recent talk with the Korean director, on the occasion of the release of Woman is the Future of Man on DVD, is not an interview - per se.
Knowing that I was to introduce the screening of Hong Sang-soo
's The Power of Kangwon Province
at the 25th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
, two good friends of mine bought tickets to support me and to ponder what it is Adam sees in this South Korean director he's been talking about for the past eight years. My friends had chosen the right film for introduction to Hong's work, since I feel The Power of Kangwon Province
is truly his most accessible film rather than Woman on the Beach
as some film folks have been arguing lately. It follows two narratives that we are clued into connecting halfway through the film, a narrative form with which many are comfortable since it's one wielded by much independent cinema.
My friends will occasionally take risks on films, so it wasn't necessary that they appreciate the film, but appreciate it they did. And that appreciation was underscored as we walked to the Peet's Coffee down Van Ness Avenue following the screening. It was St Patrick's Day and many a reveler was stumbling around us. (A former co-worker of mine once explained why he doesn't go out to bars on holidays known for drinking because "It's a day for amateurs.") A group of these posers was approaching us, in that drunken way of running as if chasing in waist-high water, and we realized they were in sloth pursuit of a limousine as a taxi ride. This moment immediately opened up a memory from an evening long past on which my friends and I, drunken amateurs ourselves, hailed a limousine to go somewhere from somewhere. We had to piece together a facsimile of that night from our various swatches of memory. I quickly vocalized this as a memory like those fabricated in a Hong film, in which unreliable characters reveal pasts to presents as questionable as the futures they plan.
So far the only Hong Sang-soo film to find a theatrical release in the US, and a seriously limited one at that, is Woman Is the Future of Man, which New Yorker Films is bringing out on DVD this week. I'm happy to have any of Hong's films made more widely available since his work is neglected here. However, it is Hong's least accessible film that becomes most accessible through this DVD release. Still, I feel it's fair to say that anyone who bothers to read a film in the US, that is, someone who watches subtitled films, is someone not averse to being pushed beyond the easily accessible. They find pleasure in being placed out of their comfort zones. They can handle being put at dis-ease. And Hong is indeed a master of tempering discomfort while still avoiding nihilism and shock tactics. His cinema is more creeping than creepy. His films grow on you slowly like kudzu, and Woman Is the Future of Man will definitely bear bountiful crops for those who harvest the time to watch this patch of Hong's garden grow over seasons of patient sittings.
Woman Is the Future of Man follows two men and their pasts, pasts that intersect with one woman. Heon-jeon is a film student (played by Kim Tae-woo) who has returned from his studies in the US. We meet him on his way to meet Moon-ho, an art professor (played by Lee Ji-tae, fresh off his villainous role in Oldboy) who has acquired a wife, a home and a dog in Heon-jeon's absence. Eventually they will find themselves in a Chinese restaurant where Hong presents the male gaze in all its blazing futility.
Although Hong has stated in the past that he brings no political agenda to his films, the scenes he constructs can't help but display a gender critique. In this Chinese restaurant scene, Moon-ho and Heon-jeon will each take turns stepping away from the table for a moment to allow the other to engage in entrapping tactics, to gaze nakedly at the Chinese-Korean waitress at the restaurant. Heon-jeon perpetrates as if he's casting for a film he's making while Moon-ho claims to require a nude model. Different stories with similar desires. Each attempt is refused by the Chinese-Korean waitress and each of her escapes is followed by counsel from her boss, the first a bit of scolding that she should take more risks, soon negated by the return to caution of the second lecture. But even if her boss's critiques were not in Chinese but their native Korean, Heon-jeon and Moon-ho wouldn't have heeded her words anyway. They still would turn away from the rejection without reflection, proceeding to throw their gaze out the window at the purple-scarved woman standing across the street with no place to cover from their eyes stripping her bare. We gaze at them gazing at the outside woman's unfocused image, so we aren't as complicit in their act as when Kyeong-soo's gaze guides us to mutually focus on the legs of a young woman in Hong's Turning Gate. (After seeing it yet again at the retrospective, Turning Gate solidified its place as my favorite of Hong's films.) So perhaps this documentation of the male gaze is not the most discomforting of Hong's scenes, but it's up there.
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