The Power of Kangwon Province (Hong Sangsoo, 1998)

The Power of Kangwon Province (Hong Sangsoo, 1998)

Hong Sangsoo’s second feature is much more recognizably his work than his debut. He wrote the screenplay, as he will with all his subsequent films, but did not for The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. Scenes are for the most part now filmed in static single takes and the editing is all straight cuts (if I remember correctly he won’t use a dissolve again until Hill of Freedom). There are a few overhead or POV shots, and in general everything looks much more dynamically composed than his later films, the symmetrical, right-angle, two-shot conversations mixed liberally with picturesque landscapes and striking set-ups like an early shot of the female lead standing in the foreground while diagonally behind her a woman sweeps the sidewalk in front of a colorful building.

He trims the narrative splits in half as well, the first part following a young woman named Jisook on vacation in Kangwon with two girl friends. She’s a bit remote from them, introduced as isolated from their group, only to come together and then split apart again as they argue over her behavior in the wake of her breakup with a married man. She spends a drunken night with a local policeman, whom she returns to visit alone some weeks later.

The second half follows a married university lecturer, Sangkwon, who has just ended his relationship with a younger woman (Jisook, naturally). He’s trying to get a job as a professor, with little luck (he has a disastrous visit with an older professor who may have some influence over his future despite his filthy (bachelor) living conditions. This meeting also contains Hong’s only(?) instance of cutaway humor, when Sangkwon mentions how much character the apartment building has and we cut away to a brief shot of the building, one of a bland, identical row of concrete blocks. Sangkwon decides to visit Kangwon with a friend, and it turns out he’s there at the same time as the girls from the first half of the movie were in town. There are a few coincidental occurrences and some near misses but the former lovers never meet. Sangkwon spends a drunken night with a bored prostitute and goes home to leave Jisook a message on the wall outside her apartment, which we saw her erase at the end of the first half[1].⁠ The two will eventually meet for an awkward sexual encounter, but part again.

Kangwon Province is funnier than The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, and its men are both less violent and less pathetic. What violence there is is implicit: there’s a possible murder that occurs off-screen, where a woman we meet in both halves falls off a cliff, possibly pushed because of jealousy inspired by a scene made by Sangkwon. Its heroes are sad, as are their attempts at hooking up with other people, but less because they are hopeless losers, like the men in his first film, but because they feel incomplete. In the wake of their break-up, each feels like half a person. Threads of coincidence unite them: they visit the same places, but at different times, each haunted by the echo of the other. Their most mysterious connection is through a pair of goldfish Sangkwon adopts from a neighbor in his office building. Before Kangwon there were two. Jisook finds one on a trail in the woods and buries it in the shade. After Kangwon, and the couple’s unsuccessful attempt at reunion, Sangkwon checks on the fish in his office. There’s only one left.

  1. Unless my math is wrong, the timeline here doesn’t add up. Sangkwon, because he misses his flight, spends two nights in Kangwon, but Jisook was only there for one night. Yet somehow he returned to her apartment before she did. If I’m correct, this is Hong’s first, but definitely not last, temporal anomaly. ↩︎