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Archive for January, 2014

This blog entry contains spoilers.

It’s often said that the films of Hong Sang-soo are all basically the same. His male characters are invariably film school professors or struggling directors who drink too much soju and make awkward passes at various young women in their orbit (usually their students), and his stylistic range is similarly narrow. A typical scene consists of two people talking to each other while seated in a restaurant or on a park bench, and is filmed in long shot from a fixed camera position in a single take. Sudden, apparently unmotivated zoom ins are common but zoom outs are rare enough that one in the final scene of his latest movie feels like a major event. What’s surprising, given Hong’s perverse insistence on tackling the same themes in exactly the same style in film after film after film, is how much variation he’s able to wring out of them.

From what I’ve seen of Hong’s work, Hahaha (2010) is easily his funniest movie as the inventive flashback structure is especially conducive to generating laughs at the characters’ expense. In the present tense scenes (which are represented as a series of black and white still images), two friends recount their separate trips to the same small village, though neither of them knew then that the other was in the area. In flashbacks, we see how one of the men got into a feud with the ex-boyfriend of a local woman he was pursuing while the other was in town visiting his buddy who just broke up his girlfriend. Although the characters never realize it, we can plainly see they’re both talking about the same guy, and by alternating between their recollections, the film shows us how many times the two friends almost crossed paths, as if the Fates were conspiring to keep the truth from them.

Similarly, the humor in Our Sunhi (2013) depends on the characters’ lack of awareness that they’re all chasing after the same girl. The movie begins with the title character (Jeong Yu-mi) returning to her alma mater to ask her old film professor, Dong-hyeon (Kim Sang-jung), to write her a recommendation letter for grad school in the States. Afterwards, while getting drunk at a chicken and beer joint close to the campus, Sunhi runs into her ex-boyfriend, Moon-soo (Lee Seon-gyun), who’s still hung up on her more than a year after they broke up. At this point, it seems that the movie is going to be about Sunhi, but then we follow Moon-soo as he walks from the chicken and beer joint to the apartment of another faculty member, Jae-hak (Jeong Jae-yeong). Subsequently, Jae-hak and Dong-hyeon both take Sunhi out for drinks on separate evenings and become smitten with her as well, though none of the men ever mention their feelings to the others. Bemusement ensues.

Based on this synopsis, one might infer that Sunhi must be a really special girl to bewitch all these guys without even trying, but she’s really a blank screen that the men project their own ideas on to. In her first conversation with Dong-hyeon, he describes Sunhi as being reserved based on the fact that no one from the university has seen her in over a year. But while our certainty in his assessment of her gets called into question when we learn that Sunhi broke up with Moon-soo around the same time that she supposedly disappeared, we don’t know enough about their relationship to judge whether or not this is an adequate explanation for why she stayed away from the campus for so long. (Indeed, when Moon-soo passes by the chicken and beer joint, it’s she who calls out to him.) It’s indicative of how little we learn about Sunhi that even though all three men agree that she’s artistic and a little strange, we don’t actually see her do anything that would confirm or refute either of these claims.

As David Bordwell has already pointed out, Hong often sets two or more scenes in the same location with one character replacing another in order to emphasize similarities and contrasts. At one point in this movie, we see Sunhi sitting at a table in the same café where Moon-soo met Jae-hak earlier on, chatting with the proprietress who occupies the same seat in both scenes. Sunhi is sitting in Moon-soo’s chair, and as Hong frames both scenes in exactly the same way, it’s all the more striking that Jae-hak’s seat is empty (especially as Sunhi just ran into him in the previous sequence). This slight variation creates a kind of low-key suspense: Did Sunhi go to the café by herself or will Jae-hak turn up later on in the scene? In other words, Hong’s style creates very specific expectations about how the scene will play out so that even subtle deviations seem hugely significant.

As this suggests, the film’s real subject isn’t so much who winds up with whom and why, but the director’s style which makes the viewer acutely aware of how the story is being told. One especially self-conscious touch is the use of an old Korean love song in the scene in the chicken and beer joint. The poor quality of the recording suggests that the song is coming from within the diegesis, though up till this point no music has been heard in the scene and we don’t see anyone turn on a radio. Furthermore, the song continues over the following shot of Moon-soo walking towards Jae-hak’s apartment, so when we hear it again in the scene in the café where the two men go that evening, we’re led to believe that it’s non-diegetic (here also the music comes on abruptly from an unseen source) only to be confounded when Moon-soo exclaims that he just heard the same song earlier in the day. Ha-ha-ha.

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