Hong Sangsoo Capsule Reviews

Hong Sangsoo Capsule Reviews

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002) — May 9, 2013

Is it the remembering of the story of the Turning Gate that leads to re-enacting it, and if so, is it remembering the whole first half of the film that leads to inverting it? What’s the relation between past and present, between fiction and life? “It’s difficult enough to be a human being, let’s try not to be monsters.”

Tale of Cinema (2005) — May 10, 2013

An exchange only possible in a Hong Sangsoo film:

While attempting to woo an actress, a man tells her the movie she starred in was based on events from his own life. The actress responds, “I don’t think you really understood the film.”

Lost in the Mountains (2009) — January 23, 2018

A kind of a test drive for Oki’s Movie, with the same principal actors gathered together in essentially the same story. The primary difference, other than that it’s all one, conventionally presented, story, is that it’s entirely from the perspective of Jung Yumi’s character, who is the first Hong heroine to narrate an entire film. Women had been the primary perspective of parts of earlier Hong films (Kangwon Province and Virgin Stripped Bare, of course, but also the end of Woman on the Beach), but never had the woman’s perspective so driven the film.

As such, it forms a kind of trilogy with Oki’s Movie and Our Sunhi. In Oki’s Movie, the central love triangle is presented three ways, with Jung’s Oki being given the last word on both the relationship(s) and the film itself. In Our Sunhi, Jung dominates whether she’s on the screen or not, as the film is as much about her as it is about the three men who all see her in the same, thoroughly generic terms. She’s an object of their affection, not (in their minds) a subject in her own right. The film, all of these three films, are about her struggle to separate herself from these men’s perceptions of her while at the same time pursuing her own professional and romantic interests.

Hahaha (2010) — October 6, 2010

The first of two films directed by Hong Sangsoo at this year’s Vancouver Film Festival, it begins, unsurprisingly for Hong, with two old friends drinking and telling stories about women. The film proper is comprised of these two stories, which end up being about the same woman, though neither knows it, while the frame is played in black and white stills with voiceover (and lots of “Cheers!” as the two drink quite a lot). The Hong films I’ve seen all have a split structure, with the second half of the film telling a new story with some of the same characters in a way that mirrors and comments upon the events of the first story. This film has that same structure, but the stories are intercut instead of segregated. This makes the film a lot easier to watch, and this is definitely the film I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen a Hong Sangsoo film yet. As for the stories themselves, they’re Hong’s traditional terrain of romantic misadventures and misunderstandings and lots and lots of drinking. Again there’s a character who’s a film director, this time he falls for a tour guide who’s dating a poet who is best friends with a guy who’s on vacation from his wife with his girlfriend. It’s this last guy and the director who are the two narrators of the film. It’s as funny as Like You Know It All, one of my favorites at last year’s festival, if not quite as weird and certainly not as insidery about film festival life.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013) — January 23, 2018

I didn’t notice it the first time I saw this (I wrote about it for VIFF 2013), but this is kind of a sequel to Hahaha, with the couple Haewon meets in the third story being one of the two couples from that film, Ye Jiwon and Yoo Junsang (he the depressed, glasses wearing friend and she the girlfriend with whom he’s afraid to go out in public), which would make this the first actual sequel of Hong’s career. Unless, as I do, you consider the Jung Yumi-starring films (Lost in the Mountains, Oki’s Movie, and Our Sunhi) to all be about the same woman who for reasons which should be obvious, goes by three different names.

But, like much of Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, that whole section is revealed to be just a dream. Apparently, Haewon is so much a fan of Hahaha that she has dreamed its characters into her life in an attempt to sort out her complicated feelings about a similar situation to the one presented in the film (she’s considering restarting an affair with a married professor).

Hong tailors his films so much to the specific actors, that it's easy to read them as playing the same characters in film after film. The Yoo Junsang heroes are very different from the Lee Seongyun heroes (the latter is whinier and more aggressive, while the former is more open and vulnerable), just as the Jung Yumi heroines are very different from the ones played by Kim Minhee. You can see this in Our Sunhi, with the difference in the professor/director characters played by Moon Sungkeun in Virgin, Oki’s Movie, and On the Beach versus the professor played by Kim Sangjoong.

In Another Country stands out in this regard, where Moon, Yoo, and Jung all play very different kinds of characters. It’s the second one to star both Yoo and Jung, but as in Like You Know It All (Jung’s first appearance in a Hong film, in a role unlike any of her later ones) they don’t appear on-screen together. They’re in two separate sections of Like You Know and Huppert hears them talking and laughing behind a door in In Another Country, implying that they might be a couple, but we never see them.

But also: Jung is the one writing the stories of In Another Country, and in that frame story she’s could very well be the Oki/Sunhi character, writing a new kind of part for herself.

Added April 26, 2022:

Today I learned there’s a Hole song/album called “Nobody’s Daughter” and now I’m wondering if Hong is a Courtney Love fan.

Haewon trying to go to class but being a bit late and deciding to go to the library instead then promptly falling asleep is too real.

Oki, Haewon, and Sunhi only go to class once, and it’s the snow day where no one but Oki and Jingu show up.

I probably love these movies because I never went to class either.

50:50 (2013) — January 22, 2018

A man smokes with a woman, explaining that he has to stand by her because the woman he’s with (just off-screen, coughing) can’t smoke because she’s very sick. She might even die.

All the pathetic loathsomeness of the Hongian man distilled to a pure, 93-second film festival teaser.

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) — January 24, 2018

“In this one moment, it feels like I’ve travelled far, so far.”

Still think this is a bit too conventional, and watching it in sequence with the other Hongs, it’s so much longer and slower. I watched it immediately after Hill of Freedom yesterday and wow.

Those two long takes of Kim and drunk Jung Jaeyoung at the bar seem to stretch forever. But both actors are so good, you can’t blame Hong for letting them roll. It’s such a quiet film. Kim’s performance, so unlike any previous Hong heroine, is a whisper, while Jung finds a new kind of Hongian man, more closed than Yoo Junsang, more confident than Lee Seongyun. It builds on his work in Our Sunhi, where he’s wiser than those other boys, yet still befuddled by the heroine. It’s significant that he doesn’t get a voiceover in the second half.

If you wanted to argue that there’s an inverse relationship between the structural and emotional complexity of Hong’s films, this would probably be the best example.

On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) — February 24, 2017

On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Never was much of a romantic
I could never take the intimacy
And I know I did damage
Cause the look in your eyes is killing me
I guess you are at an advantage
Cause you can blame me for everything
And I don’t know how I’mma manage
If one day you just up and leave
And I always find, yeah, I always find something wrong
You been putting up with my shit just way too long
I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most
So I think it’s time for us to have a toast
Let’s have a toast for the douchebags
Let’s have a toast for the assholes
Let’s have a toast for the scumbags
Every one of them that I know
Let’s have a toast for the jerk-offs
That’ll never take work off
Baby, I got a plan
Run away fast as you can

On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) — January 24, 2018

I wrote briefly about this for InReview Online’s year-end recap about a month ago:

“The first of his three 2017 films to get a US theatrical release (Claire’s Camera and The Day After are coming in 2018, along with another movie or two on the festival circuit most likely), On the Beach at Night Alone stars Kim Minhee as an actress recovering from the break-up of an affair she’d had with her director, the cause of a scandal back home. The first half of the film finds her in Germany, where she wanders through the cold with friends. In the second, she’s back in Korea, where a chance meeting with a film crew offers an opportunity to see the director again. Or maybe it doesn’t, the line between dream and reality is never entirely clear with Hong Sangsoo, and the line between fiction and autobiography has never been more porous. It’s impossible to say how much of Hong and Kim’s real-life scandalous affair made its way into the movie, but his portrait of the director seems to me equal parts boast and self-critique, like Kanye West as a Korean art film director. Kim, on the other hand, evokes the world embracing soul of the title line’s poet. Haunted by phantom men, dreaming her escape.”

On rewatch, it’s pretty obvious that the meeting with the director is merely a dream. Therefore it’s Hong’s version of a Kim-like character’s imagining of what a Hong-like character would say to Kim to justify to her the affair that ruined her career but barely dented his.

I’m toying with the idea that the first section of the film, only a third and not half as I’d erroneously recalled, is the film Kim is seen watching at the beginning of the Korean section. A film the director she’d had an affair with made about their relationship. The Kim we see abroad then also is the director character’s version of her, while the director we see is the Kim character’s version of him.

So many levels of literal mediation between people as they are and people as they want to appear. Even the most actual people in the film, Kim’s old friends, bury themselves in false fronts, the men strutting for the pretty girl while the women compete for the attention of both Kim and their men. The only real things are Kim alone in the elements: rubbing her hands against the cold air, softly caressing a flower, lying on the beach, listening to the surf crash.

The Day After (2017) — June 11, 2017

I’d written 500 words as an introduction to a review about this when Evan had the much better idea of discussing both it and Claire’s Camera together. But those 500 words are still around, with nowhere to go. So I might as well put them here:

The already prolific Korean director Hong Sangsoo has been seemingly spurred into high gear in the wake of his disintegrating marriage, sparked by an affair with actress Kim Minhee, star of his 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then. The Day After is his fourth film to premiere in less than a year, debuting a couple of weeks ago in competition at Cannes, alongside Claire’s Camera (out of competition) and following On the Beach at Night Alone (for which Kim won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival in February) and Yourself and Yours, which premiered at Toronto last fall and just played three shows here at the Seattle Film Festival. While Yourself and Yours is a more typical variation of Hong’s established form and themes (lotsa of drinking, poor communication between men and women, a haphazard approach to norms of time and space as applied to narrative), albeit with a surprisingly hopeful and romantic conclusion, the other three films, all of which star Kim Minhee, seem to be addressing their affair and its complications more or less explicitly.

There is great danger in this, as reducing film to autobiography is a tempting game for critics to play, an easy way to fill word counts without need to plumb too far into a work’s depths, and it’s especially foolhardy with Hong, who has made a career out of not only turning the apparent materials of his life into the environments and plot engines of his films, but also explicitly critiqued the narcissistic impulse toward biography in filmmaking (the most obvious example of this being his masterpiece, 2010’s Oki’s Movie). Rather, it’s probably best to look at these three latest films not as commentary on Hong’s personal life, but rather as bits of his personal life used as window-dressing for other, more theoretical and universal concerns. Kim in On the Beach at Night Alone is not playing herself, but rather a woman who has had an affair with a director which has become public and scandalous. What is relevant is not the one-to-one correspondence with her and Hong’s life, for that is merely gossip, but rather what Hong makes of that basic material (in the case of that film, a beguiling and mysterious look at a woman trying to rebuild her psyche on a trip far from home). Similarly, Claire’s Camera, in which Kim sleeps with a director at Cannes and loses her job because her boss his sleeping with him too, is less about an affair then it is about the effects of being seen on human behavior, where Isabelle Huppert, as a kind of impartial paparazza, uncovers the affair and, in recording only parts of the story, both knits it together and radically destabilizes the narrative. The Day After, the story of marriage threatened by a man’s affair with a younger woman, is not, specifically, about a particular real-life affair, but rather about what many an other Hong film is about: the lies venal men tell themselves and their deflation at the hands of a (morally, spiritually, intellectually) superior woman.

Claire’s Camera (2017) — December 14, 2017

Of the three(!) features Hong Sangsoo released this year, the least heralded thus far has been Claire’s Camera, shot over a few days at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. All three films are somewhat inspired by the extra-marital relationship between Hong and his lead actress, Kim Minhee. On the Beach at Night Alone finds her on wintery shores, recovering from a scandalous affair, while in the stark black and white of The Day After she finds herself caught between a pompous man, his wife, and his mistress. Claire’s Camera inhabits the same self-excoriating space, as Kim is inexplicably fired from her job as a sales rep (she doesn’t know that she’s unwittingly become tangled in a love triangle: her boss is sleeping with a director, and he’s told her that he also slept with Kim). She gets nothing but abuse from her Korean elders: her boss won’t be straight with her and the director publicly harangues her for wearing denim shorts. But then, one day, on the beach, she meets Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a French school-teacher with a fondness for taking pictures. The two hit it off, exchanging compliments in charmingly broken English, an instantaneous connection of openness and warmth. There’s a mystery about Claire, I’ve a theory that she may be a time traveller in this most Rivettean film, but what is indisputable is that with her camera she transforms the people around her. The dead souls of the older Koreans are exposed, while Kim’s innate brightness is unleashed.

Added April 12, 2018:
Fourth time seeing this, and my time travel theory still holds. Very obvious the ways in which Claire’s camera affects the director. It’s still the Mark Peranson/hot pants scene that most confuses the timeline.

Added July 7, 2018:
Of the three films Hong Sangsoo made in 2017 with Kim Minhee, with whom he’s been seeing in a highly publicized relationship, two were released in the US in the spring of 2018, shortly after his Grass, which also stars Kim, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. As always, the hyper-productive Hong outpaces the abilities of the international art house distribution system. Claire’s Camera was made in a rush, even by Hong’s standards. Shot over a few days at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, with a rough cut completed a day after filming wrapped, it’s a deceptively light and sunny film, the flip side of the cold, bitter worlds of the other two 2017 films (On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After). Kim plays a young woman who is working for a film marketer who abruptly gets fired in the middle of the festival. She doesn’t know why, and her boss won’t tell her, but later we learn its because the boss believes Kim slept with the director they’re representing, with whom the boss is having an affair. All three Koreans encounter Isabelle Huppert’s Claire, a music teacher visiting the festival for the first time. The director carries on an awkward flirtation with her, the boss is vaguely cold and suspicious of her, while Kim is charm incarnate, their meet cute on the beach with broken English one of the most adorable scenes of the year. Out of these simple elements, a handful of provocative lines and some temporally confounding scenes and images, an unfathomable mystery is formed: the film only grows more enigmatic on repeat viewing. What can we know about other people, or even ourselves, in a world where truth is malleable, where people lie to themselves and each other and even a camera, in theory an objective record of an event, can not only produce deceptive images but actually transform the thing it photographs?

Grass (2018) — February 26, 2018

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.