Say you watch Korean movies. Often, outside the peninsula itself, this means you’ve gotten into the murderous grotesquerie of Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” or Joon-ho Bong’s simultaneously goofy and solemn political allegory of a monster mash The Host, or any amount of Ki-duk Kim’s vast, high-profile (and as some fans admit, uneven) output. But mention the name of Sangsoo Hong to cinephiles themselves from Korea, and they’ll react like you’ve uttered the secret codeword of Korean film enthusiasm. “How have you seen Sangsoo Hong’s movies?” they might ask, expressing more than faint disbelief. “You really like them?” I’ve made friends instantly by dropping Hong’s name, and won free semesters of Korean language classes by writing about him for essay contests. Even the Koreans ambivalent to Hong’s work I’ve met still seem at least casually conversant in it, only one of several reasons critics so often describe the director as South Korea’s Woody Allen.
Interviewed by a reporter for a Korean-language newspaper here in Los Angeles, I cited Hong’s movies as my entrée into Korean culture. The published article portrayed me as having followed my fascination down such a cinematic, literary, and culinary rabbit hole that I have, at this point, attained “quasi-Koreanness.” I should consider this an honor, and in terms of my interests not a wholly inaccurate one, but then my mind returns to the actual content of Hong’s movies. Read any book on the Korean people by a Western writer, and it will underscore, boldly and in metaphorical red, the centrality of racial and national pride to the experience of both the South Korean, (and, to strikingly different effect, the North Korean,) state and individual. But then why is the prolific Hong so popular among Koreans? From his 1996 debut The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well up to this year’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, the Hong’s large filmography—his Allen-like pace of production also partially accounting for the comparison—he hardly stands as an advertisement for Koreanness.
Three years ago, when Hong had only eight features to his name (he now has fourteen), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounted a retrospective called “Cigarettes and Alcohol: Eight Films by Hong Sangsoo.” I hadn’t yet made Los Angeles my city, but then began to suspect that any town which could screen such a series could more than earn my allegiance. Hong actually traveled to America to introduce his work, though he proved a man of few words. “This film is very long,” he said to us as we sat down to watch Night and Day, then his newest release. “I hope you find something good in it.” Hong’s demeanor of quiet modesty contrasted starkly against that of the picture’s protagonist, a painter named Seong-nam. Exiled in Paris after escaping an arrest for smoking marijuana back in Seoul, this inept, philandering blowhard stumbles his way through a few down-and-out months amid the city’s tiny Korean expatriate community, and then with continued high-volume haplessness makes his way back home. And yes, he smokes plenty of cigarettes and drinks plenty of alcohol along the way—not as much as some of Hong’s other, truly shambolic protagonists, but plenty.
“Mun-ho is a college lecturer in art, and a living, chunky rebuttal of the notion that art refines the soul,” writes the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, reviewing Hong’s 2004 Woman is the Future of Man, giving the filmmaker a rare moment of mainstream attention. He then describes a standard Hongian scene: “Whether his moral conduct is less or more offensive than his choice of knitwear is something I have yet to resolve, and even his longtime friendship with Hun-joon, a struggling filmmaker, seems pitted by tetchiness and tantrum. Yet they continue to meet for meals, and I guess that any kinship that can survive raw squid and four bottles of rice wine deserves to last.” This film, still seemingly Hong’s best known in the United States, put on display Korean male character types to which most Western viewers had probably never before known: deeply insecure, prone to red-faced outbursts of defensive vulgarity, and possessed of—possessed by, really—an almost reptilian sexual opportunism. “Koreans are too fond of sex,” proclaims one of Woman is the Future of Man’s main characters. “They have nothing better to do.”
But Lane adds: “Before you whip out your credit card and book a flight to Seoul, I should warn you that the landscape of desire, as laid out before Hong’s unflustered gaze, could scarcely be further from an idyll.” I’ve heard Hong’s detractors complain about the amorality of his men, but if you find his view of manhood troubling, get a load of his women, almost all eerily unrepentant studies in blank calculation and frigid pliability. They remind me of Simon Winchester’s unreconstructed observations on the same in his book on the country: “A most bewildering and complicated mixture of emotions and attitudes. One woman can at the same moment be delightfully shy and yet alarmingly forward, liberated and yet coquettishly deferential, sexually ignorant and yet wantonly promiscuous, aggressive and argumentative and yet strangely sulky and passive. The baser side of me would often think that for stimulation and curiosity value alone there could probably be no greater woman than the Korean, but life could at the same time perhaps be pretty hellish, I have no doubt.”
Life for all of Hong’s characters, male or female, can, at various times and for various reasons, get pretty hellish. The director elaborates on the reasons in an interview in Moonyung Huh’s study Korean Film Directors: Hong Sangsoo: “There are men who feel that only with women can they feel an absolute sense of connection. I think it’s a good experience to go through that absolute kind of connectivity, be it one hour or a year. However, that very subjective experience may not be enough considering that our lifespan is longer than one hour or a year. And so they fall in front of women continuously.” As for humanity’s other half, “that’s why there can’t be a contract or a rule needed for minimal decency promised to women. That’s why it is difficult for women to begin a relationship with men with whom she can place a minimal amount of trust. A woman knows that she is getting tired, but she holds onto a relationship until she can trust. Men embrace women thinking that she is the only savior, but are nervous because they can already visualize the end even with their eyes closed.”
Followers of Woody Allen will by now have some familiarity with concept of men and women treating each other poorly onscreen, but Hong’s characters do it at a level of blinkered bluntlness all their own. The passage of time and Hong’s growing popularity have tempered their savageness, but to see it in the raw, we have only to return to his first and roughest effort, The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well. Never mind the disregard of man for woman and vice versa; not a scene goes by without one of them physically attacking the other, sometimes during a barrage of vicious insults. Toward the end of the picture, we even see a few shots of bloody murder, which take this physicality to a level of consequence no Hong film has since approached. Yet, like all its many successors, The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well gives us countless opportunities to laugh at its characters’ boorish behavior and the painful grind of their expectations against reality, not to mention against the expectations of their stubborn superiors, disappointing acquaintances, spiteful friends, and flaky once and/or future lovers.
“My drawing teacher in college wrote in my recommendation letter I had a strange sense of humor,” says Hong in Huh’s book. “That was the first time I heard of it. If one looks at each slice of life without being so self-centered, so impulsive, so purpose-driven, then the arrangement of those familiar slices will escape from being clichés and even become the basis of strange humor.” This is exactly what his self-centered, impulsive, purpose-driven characters, male and female, do not do. Evidently he writes from experience, since he recalls a time when he, Sangsoo Hong, behaved just like a Sangsoo Hong protagonist: “I went through puberty clinging onto ideals such as absolute truth, perfect world, absolute purity, etc. I failed to comprehend things in life that couldn’t be incorporated into that ideal system. So, my life became fraught with schizophrenia asking why reality cannot easily converge with these beautiful ideals. Only when I reached my twenties did I fortunately begin to see the falsehood behind those ideals and began to better appreciate life, that is, as it is. Characters in my movies reflect such experiences. Specific characters chase after clichéd ideals, or even get chased by them, but I want my gaze on these characters to be composed from visions that are free from these clichés. It’s the ideals that are the essence of the problem, not life itself.”
Hence his tendency to draw characters from the supposedly high-ideal professions: Night and Day’s painter Seong-nam, for example, or Woman is the Future of Man’s professor Mun-ho, or the arthouse filmmaker Kyeong-nam of 2009’s Like You Know it All. Again we could reference Allen, with his gallery of creators and academics, but I think now my mind goes to Hal Hartley, the American filmmaker of whom I prefer to describe Hong as the Korean equivalent. But this presumes we should describe him with comparisons to American filmmakers at all, which we probably shouldn’t. Even lining Hong up with Hartley, director of such reasonably well-known New York independent pictures of the nineties as Trust, Simple Men, and Henry Fool, doesn’t quite work, because very few Americans I’ve come across know who he is can hold a conversation about him. I don’t mean to give the impression that every Korean I meet has watched and reflected upon Hong’s complete works, but they do tend to have a sense of his place in the national culture, and, more to the point, the international culture. American awareness of Hartley, by contrast, appears to have fallen to an all-time low, not least because he hasn’t made anything feature-length in seven years. (Hong has released eight movies in the same span.)
Both Hong and Hartley, however, have something of the European New Wave lingering about them; not the aestheticization to which Allen has held on but a kind of formal inventiveness in their methods of production and storytelling. Hong famously writes his dialogue the morning of each shooting day. “Everything that I encounter during filming can stimulate me,” he explains in Huh’s book. “I could remember a past event while listening to a conversation of crew members the night before, or the weather at the location that day could stimulate me somehow. Everything that surrounds me could potentially stimulate me as the starting point for the details of what I need to film that day.” He thus gathers those aforementioned “familiar slices” that add up to humor: the kind of humor also on offer in Hartley’s films, not the kind that you would classically call “comedy,” and not the kind that always makes you laugh out loud, but the kind that keeps you pondering the abstractly humorous nature of life itself for months afterward. “I want to make one body that can hold all pieces even though they seem contradictory or unrelated to each other,” Hong says of the way his pictures bring these fragments together. In stating his belief that “my films are not made to express a story, but to feature some fragments,” he makes a more New Wave proclamation than I’ve ever heard from anyone born after 1940, let alone twenty years after.
But just as Hong’s characters—those frustrated artists, thwarted junior professors, disaffected wives, and drifting ex-girlfriends—simply want what they want, pursue it, and come up with their elaborate, stammering rationale later, does Hong himself have a similarly fraudulent relationship to filmmaking theory and practice? In his most visually and formally striking film, 2000’s Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, he shoots without color, telling the story twice and strictly dividing each version, one from the male perspective and the other from the female perspective, into sets of parallel chapters. Of this distinctive look and rhythm he says that “I had thought providing a simplified monotonous background would make it easier for the audience to visualize the contrasting contents better. But I think it may have been just a theoretical calculation. What’s more important is that I wanted to feature wintertime Seoul in black and white.” And as far as the inspiration he gathers from writing each day’s script the morning before, note also that the describes himself as “lazy my whole life [ . . . ] I would procrastinate as much as I can. At the last moment, when I can no longer procrastinate, some spontaneous thing happens in my actions. I always liked that.”
Whether it arises from intellectual discipline or sheer fecklessness, Hong has always given me the impression that he trusts his audience. To tell if any filmmaker trusts you, just look at his choices about, for instance, pace, sequence, or and realism. Does he explain too much, as if holding your hand? Does he merely affect the appearance of a new form, layering it atop a narrative all too traditionally conceived? Hong never attempts either ploy, though that hasn’t always drawn universal acclaim. Lane struggled with the unexplained repetition and overlapping of in Woman in the Future of Man’s action (admittedly not Hong’s most formally fascinating work): “This plain tale is made taxing by many things. Hong shuffles the time scheme, leaving us gasping to keep up. Some scenes appear to run not in sequence but, as it were, in parallel: we observe Mun-ho alone, seated at the side of a sports arena, wrapped in a scarf; then we see him, bare-necked, approach a group of his students—same time, same place, same dazzle of sun and snow—and accept a scarf from them. How can both be true, except in reverie?”
Yet Lane, otherwise surely my favorite living critic, somehow neglects to mention that the scene plays as the funniest in the movie, and one of the funniest in Hong’s entire filmography. One of its versions of reality gives us Mun-ho completely alone, sighing in the cold. The other surrounds him with a herd of his adulatory, near-supplicant students, who lay the scarf upon him and then laugh at half a joke he makes for what seems like an entire minute too long. This formal move, indeed unexplained and perhaps inexplicable, does much to plainly and hilariously expose Mun-ho’s delusional self-regard. Similar devices do the same, to varying degrees, in each of Hong’s pictures: the he-and-she revisionism of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors; the single repeated day or series of awkwardly similar days that, like an audience-disorienting Groundhog Day, make up 2011’s The Day He Arrives; the three journeys three same-but-different Frenchwomean to make to three same-but-different Korean beach towns in last year’s In Another Country.
In only one kind of scene does Hong relinquish this cinematic freedom: sex. When one of his character’s semi-artificial enthusiasm intersects with another’s wearily ineffectual reluctance and they climb under the sheets—or, often, just on top of the whichever bed they can find—the camera remains fixed, the shot remains uncut, and we must look unblinkingly upon the act, sometimes for its entire (mercifully, yet shamefully) brief duration. Hong’s visual frankness about the where his characters’ impulses inevitably lead them helped make his name during the first decade of his career, from The Day the Pig Fell into the Well up to about Woman is the Future of Man, wherein Sun-hwa, the object of Mun-ho’s desire, asks during intercourse for permission to moan. (Lane calls this “the saddest indictment of another culture that I have ever heard.”) We’ve seen fewer minutes of unappealing sex from him since then, and the odd moment of sexuality in the recent In Another Country actually borders on the sweet, a quality it may achieve because it happens off screen, or because it involves the acting style of Isabelle Huppert, a thespian at a considerable cultural distance from cultural distance from Hong’s pack of regulars.
This decade has seen several Korean filmmakers make camp on foreign shores: Chan-wook Park to Britain and America for the Hitchcockian thriller Stoker with Nicole Kidman, for example, or Ji-woon Kim to Hollywood, which hired the formerly cult director to wrangle the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand (which literally stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and a vehicle, albeit a very fast one indeed). Hong, too, has in a sense strayed from his homeland, though, never one to wholly imitate his peers, not in the name of an all-English-language superstar-laden production featuring the biggest stars currently speaking it. Though he shot In Another Country in a Korean coastal hamlet, that surely ranks among the most provincial settings in his filmography, he centers the film around the French-born, Frenchwoman-portraying Huppert. We see three stories: in the first, Huppert the acclaimed filmmaker comes to visit a colleague and his her new family; in the second, Huppert the unfaithful wife comes for a tryst with her Korean auteur lover; in the third, Huppert the cheated-upon divorcée, whose French husband left her for a Korean woman, comes seeking solace in the company of a university lecturer friend.
Huppert, who over the past twenty years has become a talisman for filmmakers like Michael Haneke or Abbas Kiarostami looking to shore up their internationalist credentials, doesn’t speak any Korean here. Nor does she speak much French. All her communication with the other characters—Korean, to a person—happens in a halting, non-native English, made somehow ultimately clearer by its imperfections, elisions, and circumlocutions. In all three stories, Huppert runs into with a helpful young lifeguard whose enthusiasm outstrips his knowledge; their conversations remind me that, where other languages tend to expect skill, English expects only willingness. This clash of tongues opens to Hong whole new comedic avenues, and he travels them just as profitably as those he has those opened by, say, creative sequencing. When his characters explain themselves or engage in social gamesmanship in Korean, a language on which I still only have a weak grasp, they retain a bit of finesse; when they do the same in English, their words and manner take on a startling, almost animalistic bluntness. (And as a longtime follower of his work, this, alas, makes me understand that I no doubt come off the same way when I attempt to speak Korean, except Hong’s characters’ stabs at English often seem endearing.) In Another Country’s final story has a caddish married friend of Huppert’s character try, ineptly, to seduce her. But his pregnant wife, attended by Huppert’s academic friend, walks in on the attempt. “Oh, this Korean man!” wails the professor as she leads Huppert away. “What can we do about this Korean man?”
Never before has a Sangsoo Hong movie articulated the director’s core concern so baldly, and certainly not in a foreign language. But despite that clear, disillusioned gaze upon not just his countrymen but his countrywomen (remember the act of husband-theft perpetrated by an unseen Korean woman in In Another Country’s middle story), and despite having yet resisted the call of Hollywood, Hong remains the most cross-cultural Korean filmmaker alive. His films play in Seoul and Pusan, certainly, but they seem to play to even greater appreciation from local cinephiles in Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong, New York, and Los Angeles. Hence, I suppose, why my conversations with Korean acquaintances don’t peter out upon turning to Hong: despite his education in Chicago and his permanent place on the European festival circuit, his people see him as a thoroughly local boy, using fragments of thoroughly local life, who has managed to gather laurels from the wider world. His characters drink copiously, smoke habitually, struggle futilely against both social systems and their own impulses within them, and stumble into bouts of disaffected promiscuity. They share these tendencies with the ever-compromised antiheroes of more high-profile Korean stories, whether in other films, in books or in television dramas. Hong just sees them from different angles, or more than once, or in a version of reality tweaked and patterned in a way that looks starkly nontraditional set against the usual Korean blockbuster.
“Why do you make films like this?” a student asks the maker of recondite films at the center of Like You Know it All. “You know no one understands them.” The equanimous Hong has, over the past seventeen years, surely fielded many similar questions from his countrymen. Film-going Koreans who may not like Hong’s pictures per se, still see at least every third or fourth one he puts out. And if he insists on making films “like this,” well, at least he makes a lot of them—fourteen, all with an international audience, which in an Asian country of 50 million guarantees a certain level of cultural clout—and they do seem to clear a place for Korean film in the consciousness of otherwise tough-to-crack places like Europe. They understand Hong’s importance as a representative, though perhaps one who stands at an emotional distance that sometimes looks like cynicism, of Korea’s creative culture. Known to develop a rapport with his actors over long nights of alcohol and cigarettes (and reputed to actually shoot certain scenes with actors under the influence), he also carries the equally heavy burden of representing Korea’s social culture. “I don’t have hobbies,” the filmmaker admits to Huh. “But I do drink some.”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @ColinMarshall.
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