The best of Hong Sangsoo’s early films is this, his fourth feature. Following upon the great leap forward in narrative experimentation that was Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, with its bifurcated narrative of literal repetition and variation, Turning Gate takes a step toward the abstract. Again the narrative is split in half, but the repetitions are more like echoes and there’s a mysterious incident cited in both the text and the film’s title itself, the story of the Turning Gate. Eschewing the biting cruelty of his earlier films, along with their sometimes explicit violence, and filming seemingly off-hand compositions in vibrant color with very little editing or camera movement, Hong finds a new tone of wistful, bittersweet melancholy.
A young actor, Gyungsoo, played by Kim Sangkyung, learns that he’s been cut from an upcoming film and, after an argument with the director that ends with the profound thought “It’s difficult enough to be a human being, let’s try not to be monsters.” The line will become a kind of mantra for Gyungsoo through the first half of the film, he repeats it twice to the people he meets after heading out on vacation to visit an old friend in the town of Chuncheon. He hangs out and drinks with his buddy (they take a ferry trip to, but do not actually visit the Turning Gate) and the two meet up with a pretty dance instructor, Myungsook, played by Ye Jiwon. Gyungsoo and Myungsook hook up, but he refuses to tell her he loves her and things end badly, especially once Gyungsoo realizes that his friend has a thing for her. He hops a train out of town, having failed as both friend and lover.
The second half of the film begins on the train ride, where Gyungsoo meets a new woman, Sunyoung, played by Chu Sangmi. He instantly falls for her and follows her (stalks her) back to her house, where he awkwardly attempts to talk to her but is nearly rebuffed by her family. Eventually the two meet and they too sleep together, but he soon learns that she’s married and has an unfortunate habit of making him wait a long time between meetings. Having fallen in love, he attempts to break-up the marriage, but ultimately thinks better of it and decides to walk away.
The story of the Turning Gate informs our understanding of the film. A Chinese princess is loved by a commoner. Enraged, the Emperor beheads the young man. But he is reincarnated as a snake and wraps his body tightly around the princess, slowly killing her. A priest suggests she go to Chungpyung Temple in Korea. The princess goes inside the temple to ask for food, telling the snake to wait outside for her. But she never comes out, and so the snake goes after her. Just then it begins to rain and, scared, the snake runs away. The temple gate from which the snake turned back is thenceforth known as the Turning Gate.
The second half of the film is more than just an inversion of the first half, repeating the plot with differences both major and minor (in the first half it’s the woman in love, in the second half it’s the man; in the first half the woman is single but loved by the man’s friend, in the second half she’s married but if not unhappily so, then she’s at least open to cheating) but is formed by it in cosmically inexplicable ways (a note Sunyoung leaves Gyungsoo after they spend the night together repeats the language of a note Myungsook left for him). It’s possible that both stories are actual happenings, that the rhymes and discordances between them are natural coincidences, and Gyungsoo’s ultimate decision to turn away from the married woman comes from his remembering the story of the Turning Gate (“let’s try not to be monsters”).
That’s a fair reading, but I’d go a step further and posit that the second half of the film is not actual, but rather Gyungsoo’s reimagining of the initial affair melded with the Turning Gate story. In order to make sense and come to terms with the romantic disaster he’s experienced, he imagines himself and Myungsook into a version of the Turning Gate story, with himself in the needy lover role. That the second half of the film is manufactured out of elements from the first explains all the weird rhymes between the two stories (the notes, the man on the swan boat who turns out to be his future lover’s husband, etc), as well as the meeting near the end with the fortune teller, who sees the greatest things in the world in store for Sunyoung, but nothing at all for Gyungsoo, which he very well knows, for he doesn’t belong in that reality. This is much more in keeping with Hong’s later experiments in narrative, where a fictional version of events will interact in surprising ways with actual events, or where what we had believed to be real turns out to be either a film, a story, or a dream. Tale of Cinema, Oki’s Movie, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and possibly even On the Beach at Night Alone, use such fictional devices to refashion reality, and in Yourself and Yours he goes so far as to do away with the fictional device entirely and allows his heroes the power to remake reality to match their desires. This ability, to recreate one’s world and/or to be open enough to allow fiction to change the way you remember and experience it, is at the heart of Hong’s mature work. It’s the only device his heroes have for escaping from the cruelties, hypocrisies, and tragedies of modern life.