A depressed young man talks to himself, narrating his life as he meets up with his brother and then runs into an old classmate on the street. He meets her after she gets off work for dinner, which naturally enough becomes drinks instead. The two resolve to kill themselves, together, but the next evening, after taking her half of the sleeping pills, the woman throws up, telephones the man’s family and disappears. His life is saved, only to be confronted by his angry mother. After a thorough haranguing, he runs off to the roof, possibly to throw himself off. Nobody follows.
And then, the doors open and the audience exits the theatre. It turns out that what we’ve been watching is a short film, a part of a retrospective by a young director. Watching the movie are its lead actress and an odd young man, who went to film school with the director. He runs into an old friend, who brings him to lunch with his family and invites him to a gathering later that evening for a dinner in tribute to the director, who needs to raise money to pay for some medical bills. The young man is weird, but not offensively so, just entirely trapped in his own head. When he later runs into the actress, he becomes seemingly obsessed with her (for she is “his feminine ideal” the first-time that most-Hongian declaration of desire as been uttered). Over the course of an evening together, he explains to her that he not only knows the director, but that the film she starred in was based on events from his own life, a story that he had told the director in confidence, only to have it stolen as material for the movie. His pursuit of her, it seems, is an attempt at reclaiming that life, or at least reenacting the version of it as it had been filmed. “I don’t think you understood the film at all” is her life-shattering reply.
The first explicit juxtaposition of fiction with reality in Hong’s by now expected bifurcated narrative structure (Turning Gate too I think presents a constructed fiction as well, but that’s a matter of interpretation), Tale of Cinema compounds the self-obsession of the Hongian hero by conflating it with the act of both making and receiving cinema itself. Tongsu, the man from the second half of the film, is trapped in a kind of narrative ouroboros: he’s seen his life made into cinema and becomes obsessed with making cinema into his life. Disconnected from the world as it is, he can only experience it through narrative. All around him, real things are happening: lunch with a charming family, a child with a cold, old acquaintances both warm and hostile, a woman who seems to like him, but in his solipsism he cannot feel any of them.
I wonder though if he was always like that. If perhaps it was the theft of his story that trapped him in this self-referential loop, the camera literally stealing his soul. Regardless, here we have a warning shot at the impulse to see biography in the movies, our own or the filmmaker’s. This has become a particularly dangerous critical approach in readings of Hong’s recent films, following his very public affair with Kim Minhee and the three movies they made together in 2017, all of which more or less explicitly seem to reference the scandal. It’s important, but difficult, to understand that movies are not life. As Judy Garland once lied in The Pirate, “I realize that there’s a practical world and a dream world. I know which is which and I shan’t mix them.” Tongsu fails to understand that point, and in the end has so conflated the two that cinematic devices, the zoom, the voiceover, have come to define his reality as well, lost in the movie version of his life playing only inside his own head. “I need to think now,” he says. “Thinking is necessary. With thought, I can sort everything out. And even stop smoking. I have to think. To get out of all this. To live a long time.” He’s doomed.