Friday, February 27, 2009

A Personal Introduction to Hong Sang-soo

This is a brief intro to my own relationship with Hong Sang-soo's cinema in anticipation of March's film of the month, Woman is the Future of Man. I will add two or three short posts on Sunday about the film itself in order to start the discussion. Of course, others can feel free to ignore my posts and go off in their own direction. I'm actually curious about other people's reactions, since I think mine may be fairly idiosyncratic (but maybe not). Look forward to hearing people's thoughts.

I saw my first Hong Sang-soo film almost a year ago. I had been living in Korea for a few months, and noticed Hong's first film, The Day a Pig Fell in a Well (1996), for sale on DVD. I had heard of the film and of Hong, so I decided to give it a try. My reaction was not overly enthusiastic (see my initial review here), especially at first, but something about the film intrigued me. At around this time, I also purchased a book on Hong by Huh Moonyung, part of a series on directors published by the Korean Film Council. The more I read about Hong, the more I wanted to see more of his films. I purchased his next two films, The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) and The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) (see respective reviews here and here), and my interest started to turn to fascination. I'm not entirely sure why, since although I liked the films, they did not overwhelm me as absolute masterpieces. There were probably a number of factors, but the major ones that come to mind are:

(1) Hong's films explore modern day Korean society in a way that feels very authentic to my experience in the country;

(2) Hong's films are much more interesting taken as a whole than as individual parts;

(3) He is a very distinctive director in terms of theme and style;

(4) His formal rigour coincided with my own increased interest in formal concerns;

(5) He has an almost obsessive interest in sexuality.

I mention this last quality because I think it is a relevant one to my own and probably others interest in Hong. This is hardly unique. Art cinema and sex have always had a fairly intimate link. And this interest in sexuality connects with my first point about Hong's take on Korea feeling very authentic. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the sexual nature of Hong's films gives them an appeal that caused me to track down all of his films, something I haven't done with all of the directors that I admire. At the same time, the other factors are equally important. Hong's uniqueness is in using his obsessive formalism to focus on topics usually treated in very uninteresting ways.

Following his first three films, I was unable to track down his other films immediately. The next Hong film I saw was his most recent, Night and Day (2008), which played at the Jeonju Film Festival (review here). Although recognizably a Hong film, it also differed in very exciting ways, and the experience of watching one of his films in an audience added a very different element to my view of Hong's work. It is useful to point out that Hong has never achieved a mass audience in Korea, unlike his contemporaries Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong. He has also not played the art house circuit like Kim Ki-Duk. Hong has had the support of critics, both in Korea and outside the country, but unfortunately, his reputation is such that Night and Day came and left fairly quickly in Korea, despite the fact that it is in many ways a crowd-pleasing film. The audience in Jeonju enjoyed it, but it seems Hong's reputation as difficult kept the box office numbers down.

Moving backwards, I next saw Woman on the Beach (2006) (review), followed by Woman is the Future of Man (2004) (review), Turning Gate (2002) (review), and finally Tale of Cinema (2005) (review). More than any other director I can think of, Hong is very difficult to evaluate, especially on a film by film basis. If I had to rank his films in order right now, I would probably go with:

Night and Day
The Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors
Woman is the Future of Man
Woman on the Beach
The Power of Kangwon Province
The Day a Pig Fell in a Well
Turning Gate
Tale of Cinema

However, there is no director who I've encountered (at least among those who have made many films) with such a small margin between his or her best and worst film. Hong's consistency is quite remarkable. Even more impressive is that each film since The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors can be thought of as a transitional text in some way. Hong has acheived that rare balance of continuity, growth, and unity.

It is as a Hong film, and in relation to his other work, that I will begin my discussion of Woman is the Future of Man. More to come.


Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


Great introduction. I was thinking of writing something personal along the same lines, as this was the first Hong film I saw, followed, the next day, by The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors. I will disagree with your ranking though--in my opinion, Tale of Cinema is his best movie. But I've yet to see The Power of Kangwon Province.

Marc Raymond said...

Thanks, Ignatiy, and by all means I'd be curious to hear other personal histories with this film and Hong in general.

As for the rankings of his films, your comment goes to my point. TALE OF CINEMA is my least favorite Hong but I could see viewing it again and have it be my favorite without any real radical re-thinking happening.

It also seems clear that Hong has no clear masterpiece. You could put eight Hong admirers in a room and come out with eight different choices. Again, not sure how many, if any, other directors you can say that about.