Hong Sangsoo’s third feature and his first truly daring experiment in narrative shuffling. While each of the first two films were unconventional, splitting their stories in four and two halves, respectively, they still hewed to most of the basic rules of screenwriting coherence and causality: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well is basically just a network narrative, and while The Power of Kangwon Province does make a leap back in time at the midpoint, within its two halves the laws of chronology are respected. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors though not only splits its narrative in half, it repeats it, albeit with variations in both occurrence and perspective that call into question the very nature of truth in human relationships.
Shot in a lovely black and white, evoking the cold beauty of the Korean winter, Virgin follows a love triangle involving an art dealer named Jaehoon (played by Jeong Boseok), TV film director named Youngsook (Moon Sungkeun, making his first of many appearances in Hong’s films) and a writer named Soojung (Lee Eunju, a brilliant performance in the first lead role of her tragically short life). Split across eight numbered meetings, we follow the progression of Jaehoon and Soojung’s relationship, and then, exactly halfway through the film, we skip back to the beginning and see the same meetings all over again, with some major and minor differences, everything from one character asking at a restaurant either for extra chopsticks or extra napkins, to which guy gets sick during a dinner, to the difference between sexual awkwardness and sexual assault.
It's tempting to read the differences as ones of perspective. In the first half we see things more from Jaehoon’s point of view, and we see scenes of him without the other two characters. In the second half, several scenes only involve Soojung, ones which aren’t even hinted at in the first. But rather than follow the rules of this simple He Said, She Said-style dichotomy, Hong throws scenes into each narrative that couldn’t have been witnessed by either of the two leads. Further, the director character is fundamentally different in the two versions of the story, while the other two remain more or less the same flawed but basically decent people. In the first version, the director is arrogant and a bit of a jerk but essentially honorable: after a fight with a member of his crew he apologizes honestly and profusely. In the second story, he’s weak and pathetic, soundly abused by that same underling, and whiningly needy in pressuring Soojung into sex.
While certainly dark (the relationship between Soojung and her brother in particular is weird and upsetting, defining the terms of the awful ways in which she is treated by every man she meets), there is much more humor in Virgin than in Hong’s first two films, both from the structural incongruities (it’s funny to think about why it benefits one person or the other to claim credit for finding a pair of gloves) and moments of inspired oddity (Soojung riding a gondola up a mountain is literally suspended in air at the midpoint of the film). And the sense of mystery, of the irresolvability of its narrative contradictions is almost completely new, aside from a small temporal anomaly in Kangwon. The best theory I have for the film right now is that it is two different versions of the basic events, not two perspectives, but two theories about what may have happened between two people, with probably the director as author. One version is lighter than the other, but they both end up in the same place eventually.