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Posts Tagged ‘Hong Sang-soo’

My report on the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks once again to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it.

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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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This blog entry contains spoilers.

Like many of Hong Sang-soo’s films, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013) has a loose, inconsequential narrative that’s unified by the director’s taste for doubling. In the opening sequence, the title character (Jeong Eun-chae) falls asleep while waiting for her mother (Kim Ja-ok) at a restaurant, and has a dream where she meets Jane Birkin (playing herself), who tells Haewon that she resembles her daughter. Similarly, over the course of the movie, Haewon is wooed by two older men who could be regarded as competing father figures: Seonjun (Lee Seon-gyun), a morose film school professor who vaguely resembles Serge Gainsbourg, and Jungwon (Kim Eui-sung), a jolly screenwriter who lives in the US. Writing about Hong’s In Another Country (2012), which I haven’t seen, David Bordwell argues that the director’s patterning of motifs engages the viewer in a kind of lighthearted game, but that’s no substitute for a gripping narrative.

An obsessive minimalist who returns to the same themes in film after film, Hong often gives us two versions of a particular scene, thereby testing the viewer’s ability to recall the differences. Early in the movie, Haewon goes for a stroll with her mother, who points out a young man she finds handsome (Ryu Deok-hwan). But while neither of them sees the man throw his cigarette on the ground, Hong underscores this action by zooming in on the butt. A little later, the two women are browsing outside a bookshop when they run into the man again. He tells Haewon that she can pay whatever she likes for the book she’s looking at, but she declines as it would reveal too much about herself. Later on, after breaking up with Seonjun, Haewon is walking in the same area alone when she notices a cigarette on the ground, suggesting that the handsome man will make another appearance. So it comes as a surprise when Jungwon emerges from inside the bookshop instead. He makes Haewon the same offer as his doppelgänger, but when she declines again for the same reason, he counters that she just needs to pay enough not to reveal herself. But while this sort of patterning is amusing for its own sake, I can’t say that I cared very deeply about any of the characters.

On the other hand, Mani Haghighi’s Modest Reception (2012) also has a somewhat loose narrative that’s unified by its patterning of motifs, but the story it tells is vastly more absorbing. In the opening sequence, a pair of wealthy Tehranis, Kaveh (Haghighi) and Leyla (Taraneh Alidoosti), gain access to a remote mountainous region on the Afghan border by literally throwing bags of cash at a soldier (Saeed Changizian) guarding a checkpoint, introducing a motif that’s repeated and varied throughout the movie as Kaveh and Leyla attempt to trick various people into accepting large charitable donations without them realizing it. We don’t see the events leading up to their journey, and as the characters tell a different story to everyone they meet, it’s only at the end of the film that we learn why they risk their lives entering a war zone to give money to a bunch of strangers. Watching the movie, I not only wanted to know what was going to happen next, but was trying to figure out what led up to this point based on certain clues dropped throughout the movie.

Late in the film, Kaveh and Leyla come across a man (Ghorban Nadjafi) in the process of digging a grave for his infant daughter, which is extremely difficult as the ground is frozen solid. Kaveh cruelly offers to pay the man for his daughter’s corpse so that he can feed it to the wolves, and though the man holds out for a while, he eventually gives in when Kaveh starts burning wads of bills — money that the man needs for his other children. Leyla is so disgusted by Kaveh’s behavior that she leaves him there, but after she and the man are gone, Kaveh tries to finish digging the grave himself, which is nearly impossible as he has a broken arm. (By this time, the sun has set and wolves can be heard howling in the distance.) Earlier, Kaveh had told the man that he knew what it was like to lose a child, and the zeal with which he attempts to dig the grave suggests that he may have been telling the truth, though we can’t be sure. Likewise, shortly after leaving Kaveh, Leyla pulls over to vomit by the side of the road, hinting that she might be pregnant without making it explicit. In other words, what makes the film so compelling is the manner in which it reveals story information so as to generate mystery and suspense.

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If I were making a list of the best newish films that I saw in 2011, I’d have to include a bunch of movies that I’ve already written about on this blog—notably, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty the Borrower (2010), Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem (2010), and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). However, since I have nothing more to say about these films, instead of repeating myself, what I’d rather do is turn my attention to a number of films that I greatly admire but haven’t been able to write about (either because I’ve been too busy with other things, or was too intimidated by them, or both). I don’t claim that all of my picks are masterpieces, but I like them all enough to look forward to seeing them again.

Copie conforme (Abbas Kiarostami) A rather puzzling two-part narrative about a pair of strangers pretending to be a couple, or a couple pretending to be strangers. (Or both, or maybe neither.) The verisimilitude of the film’s style is itself a fabrication, yet Kiarostami is such a master illusionist that it seems effortless.

Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo) Another two-part narrative experiment belied by the realism of the director’s mise en scène. The delightfully improbable plot is full of amusing surprises, making this the best, and funniest, South Korean movie I’ve seen since Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy (2008).

Des Hommes et des dieux (Xavier Beauvois) Further evidence, along with Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (also 2010), that classical Hollywood cinema is alive and kicking—in Europe. Largely eschewing close-ups in favor of group stagings in medium and long shot, this moving film demonstrates how much can be achieved with simplicity and restraint.

Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes) In terms of form and style, this five-part miniseries is the straightest movie Haynes has ever made, but it’s also the most political. The middle-class heroine’s sense of shame at having to work for a living is so powerfully felt that the first three episodes are almost unbearably agonizing to watch.

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Poromboiu) A cop movie where the victim is the criminal (a teenage drug dealer) and the villain is Romania’s puritanical legal code, which is enforced as thoughtlessly and as severely as the rules of grammar. The lengthy shots of our sullen hero standing around in front of grey, concrete buildings are so sensationally drab they’d make Jim Jarmusch feel jealous.

Rubber (Quentin Dupieux) A muscular European art film thinly disguised as a trashy American genre piece (making it the inverse of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive [2011]), this surrealist road movie explodes narrative conventions faster than its exterminating axle explodes heads.

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel) I’m generally averse to serial killer movies, but this gripping Australian drama is distinguished in part by its uncommon seriousness. Although it doesn’t linger on the gory details, the unrelieved grimness of the film’s subject matter and mise en scène is often hard to bear.

The Time That Remains: Chronicle of a Present Absentee (Elia Suleiman) Beginning with the creation of the state of Israel and continuing up to the present, this deadpan tragicomedy about three generations of Palestinian Christians is as stylistically rigorous as it is historically resonant. Incidentally, it’s also funny.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) A fairy tale for grownups (for better or worse), Malick’s fifth is dramatically shapeless, but the rhythmic, graphically discontinuous editing, and its combinations of music and images, go straight to the heart.

White Material (Claire Denis) Centering on a protagonist with a clear goal, this powerful film about a colonial plantation owner attempting to go about business as usual in the midst of a civil war is the closest Denis has come to making a normal movie—as if she were deliberately attempting to court a wider audience. In any case, it’s easily the most suspenseful film she’s ever made.

Needless to say, this list isn’t exhaustive. I’d also recommend Theo Angelopoulos’ The Dust of Time (2009) for its magisterial camera movements; Jia Zhang-ke’s fascinating but unfocussed I Wish I Knew (2010); Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (2010) for the director’s god-like control over mise en scène; Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011) for its narrative ambiguities and the clinical precision of Leigh’s mise en scène and framing, which both suggest the influence of Michael Haneke; and Duncan Jones’ Source Code (2011) for the way that it doles out exposition in small doses while the action moves relentlessly forward, so that (like the hero) we only gradually begin to grasp the situation.

Finally, if I were choosing he best films that I saw for the first time in 2011 regardless of when they were made—along with Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975), which I’ve already written about—my picks would be a quartet of French masterpieces: Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain (1973), Alain Resnais’ Mélo (1986), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98). While Renoir’s proletarian comedy is plainly the most beguiling and optimistic movie on my list, Eustache’s bohemian psychodrama is the most emotionally devastating, and the director’s stripped down mise en scène puts particular emphasis on the performances. On the other hand, the style of Resnais’ film is flamboyantly theatrical, yet the story is no less moving for it. Indeed, along with La Maman et la putain, this was the most powerfully acted movie that I saw all year. Lastly, Godard’s eight-part series on video (the only avant-garde item on my list) has a reputation for being esoteric, but it strikes me as more accessible than any of his recent features precisely because it doesn’t tell a story. Thus, one can groove on the sounds and images without having to worry about processing the experience in terms of narrative. Like The Tree of Life, it’s a movie that sings rather than speaking.

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