Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Red Scarf: Dream Structure in Hong Sang-soo

"I wanted to create a very artificial repetition, an arrogantly funny repetition in a space that pretends to be real." (Hong Sang-soo)

Re-watching Woman is the Future of Man, the conclusion took on a greater importance, beginning with the dream sequence at the soccer field. In my first viewing, I didn't really recall the importance of the red scarf, but on a second look it seems to dominate the mise-en-scene of the last section. It actually provides the only real clue (other than Mun-ho's eyes closing) that we have entered a dream sequence (this is typical of Hong). The presence of the scarf in the rest of the film, for myself, was a reminder of this dream, and I found it difficult to not see the last scenes of the film as dream/nightmare. And upon a second viewing and reflecting back on the rest of the narrative, it also de-stabilized the reality of anything before the dream as well. I should add that this reading is heavily informed by my own interpretation of Hong's latest film, Night and Day, which ends with a dream sequence that really caused me to re-examine the rest of the narrative ( I am anxiously awaiting the DVD release so I can have a second viewing). Incidentally, Night and Day's dream alludes back to his first film, The Day a Pig Fell in the Well, which similarly has a dream sequence near the conclusion.

When I say the reality of the earlier scenes was de-stabilized, I do not mean to suggest a "whole film is a dream" kind of interpretation. Rather, it is a more modernist idea of a certain unreliability at the heart of the narrative, a questioning of who is telling/showing me this, and why. The most obvious example of this is in the two "flashback" scenes in the first half of the narrative. After a brief opening outside of Mun-ho's house, Mun-ho and Heon-jun have a long conversation at a Chinese restaurant, filmed in one long take of over six minutes, although with a few lateral camera movements to and from the front counter. Mun-ho gets angry at Heon-jun for having hugged his wife when they visited him in America, and gets up to leave. Following an attempt at seducing the waitress, he looks out the window and makes eye contact with a woman across the street. The next portion of the narrative is signalled as a flashback, cutting from Heon-jun's look.

This is also the first music we have heard since the opening credits. The music continues into the next shot, in which we see Heon-jun exit a cab and pass in front of the camera.

The next shot shows a man enter the frame, at which point the music stops.

Re-watching the film, this whole sequence seems quite ominous, although I did not interpret that way on first viewing. Nevertheless, I do think it is meant to be disconcerting in some way even without knowing what will happen next. We see the man with Seon-hwa (who we haven't been introduced to yet) and learn he is an old high school friend who has just finished his miltiary service. He aggressively forces her into a cab with him. The next shot is of Seon-hwa entering a restaurant and sitting down with Heon-jun, where he tells her that she was raped by this man.

The question becomes, and this is not an unfamiliar one within art cinema, who is telling me this? It cannot be Heon-jun, since he was not there. But it could be his imagining of this episode. But then, why the ellipsis of the actual rape itself? Is it because he does not believe her story? Or is his story questionable? The next sequence shows the two at a love motel, where he rather violently watches her genitals and has sex with her in order to "cleanse" her. The scene is quite uncomfortable and cannot help but identify Heon-jun with the same behaviour of this "aggressive and phallic man" (as Huh Moonyung calls this character and other marginal male characters in many of Hong's films [71]). This is especially so because we are presented this scene almost in place of the rape scene that has been "cut".

Next there is a scene at the airport in which Mun-ho brings Seon-hwa in order to have a tearful farewell to Heon-jun, who is leaving for film school in America. We next cut back to the restaurant for another long take of five minutes in which Seon-hwa is discussed. After Heon-jun leaves the table, there is a narrative and formal repetition in which Mun-ho asks the waitress to pose nude for him, she refuses (as she did with Heon-hun), and then the camera follows her to the counter. The camera pans back at Mun-ho looking out the window at the same woman as Heon-jun. After her ride finally arrives, Mun-ho's flashback begins.

It is tempting to see this flashback as more clearly Mun-ho's. He is in every scene, and the sequence ends with a rather unflattering sequence in which he prematurely ejaculates. However, the first scene of the flashback shows him forcing himself on Seon-hwa, at which she gets angry and says that "You're all animals. You and that bastard just want sex. Real animals." The fact that she mentions Heon-jun and implicates him with Mun-ho, who had just tried to force himself on her, is suggestive of sexual violence that is constantly referred to and ellided. It should be noted that while they are waiting for Seon-hwa later in the film, Mun-ho says to Heon-jun that she called him a "real animal", not a complete lie but omitting the fact that she said the same thing about Mun-ho as well.

Another oddity to Mun-ho's flashback is the strange doubling of Seon-hwa's friends.

These two shots appear before and after the scene in which Mun-ho forces himself on Seon-hwa, and they seemingly erase it, as Mun-ho and Seon-hwa meet at the wedding and seem to get along well, agreeing to meet the next day.

This dream-life effect continues in the rest of the narrative, culminating in an actual dream sequence and then a repetition of the rapist character from earlier. Kyunghee, Mun-ho's student with the red scarf, has a jealous and obsessive classmate, Minwoo, who follows her and Mun-ho to a love motel. This character brings the narrative full circle, both literally and figuratively. All of the male characters are stuck in some way, unable to break out of circular thinking, especially as centered around women and sexuality.

What to make of these observations? I'm not sure. Hong's films seem to me to be very elusive in their meaning. But I do not think that they are apolitical, as some critics and even Hong himself has claimed. Certainly, they are less overtly political than many of the First Korean New Wave directors that dealt with the highly charged politics of Korea's immediate past. And compared to Lee Chang-dong, Hong's films lack a real political force, partly because of their content but also because of their less direct, more ambiguous style. To view Hong's films as imaginary, dreams and fictions is not the same as saying they are lies, but they are nevertheless unreliable as any kind of foundational truth. They are examples of a post-structuralist skepticism that can and of course has (repeatedly) been seen as conservative or reactionary because of its apolitical nature.

As much as I admired Hong's films at first viewing, I did feel they were somehow lesser than Lee's more straightforward political films. I still feel this way to some extent. I don't think Hong's greatest films can be compared to the artistic and social force of the masterpieces of a director like Lee or, perhaps more so, a Hou Hsiao-hsien. But I'm starting to find a greater appreciation of what Hong is trying to achieve, not only artistically but also socially (for me the two are as impossible to really untangle as form and content). If the personal is political, than Hong's work is clearly very socially charged. But form is also a social statement. As much as I continue to love Lee Chang-dong, a third viewing of his 1999 film Peppermint Candy revealed a certain crudity in the form that may make the film less progressive than its message indicates. This attempt at analyzing Woman is the Future of Man, on the other hand, has revealed a much deeper, more critical film than it first appeared.

Apologies for the length of the post, and for its roaming nature, but this is what blog postings are useful for, I think, especially to those of us used to more academic writing. Anxious to read other accounts and perspectives on the film.


Marshall Deutelbaum said...


Rather than being the last shot of Mun-ho's memory of his visit with Seon-hwa, internal evidence indicates that Mun-ho’s first two memories are in reversed chronological order, which means that the close-up of the chrysanthemum bush is actually the first image of the second memory.

The Earlier Day (presented second): The close-up of bees swarming over the chrysanthemum bush begins Mun-ho’s memory of the day before the visit when he met Seon-hwa outside a church. He asks whether he may visit her the next day. Seon-hwa agrees to his visit, but asks him why he is hasn’t addressed her by her first name. Together, they admire the chrysanthemum bush beside them. Seon-hwa tells Mun-ho that chrysanthemums are her favorite flowers.

The Next Day (presented first): Munho brings a bouquet of chrysanthemums (which Seon-hwa told him the previous day were her favorite flowers)when he visits Seon-hwa and, after trying to force himself on her, asks if he may address her by her first name (which we know he didn't use to address her the previous day).

The close-up of the chrysanthemum bush only seems to be a transitional shot between the two memories.

Has Hong chosen to present the sequence of Mun-ho trying to force himself on Seon-hwa first in order to make it parallel Heon-jun's first memory of Seon-hwa's rape? Such a parallel would be part of the explicit symmetries presented throughout the sequence in the Chinese restaurant.

Marc Raymond said...


Thanks for your comments, I think you are correct in that there is a double flashback structure at work here that I have to admit I didn't catch. I'm not sure if it's the next day though. If so, where do we put temporally the rest of Munho's flashback, where they actually go to his place and have sex (which is where the flashback ends)?

Re-thinking, the first scene we are shown may be of the end of their relationship, in which he then recalls the start of their affair.

Or, you may be correct, and the scene at the cafe is a deliberate play by Hong with narrative, since the previous scene contains the hook that they will meet the next day. This would explain the different hairstyle of Seon-hwa and her comment that he looks puffy. Maybe this is the future of the first two scenes. But it could be the next day as well.

Maybe there is a clue that I'm missing (is Munho's comment at the wedding that the next day is Sunday important?), but it seems likely Hong wants this to be deliberately ambiguous. We have become very use to the conventions of narrative ellipsis, and it seems like Hong wants to subtly subvert this assumption.

I still think there is a dream-like quality to the flashback, especially with the repeated image of her two friends. Although maybe simply subjective is a better way to put it.

Mattson Tomlin said...

Your post definitely made me interested. Investigating this one now!

Marshall Deutelbaum said...


I take the mention of "Sunday" to indicate that because the next day is not a school day Seon-hwa will allow Mun-ho to visit her.

By the end of the Chinese restaurant sequence the flashbacks and the details mentioned in the conversation during the meal suggest not only that Heon-jun had relationship with Seon-hwa that ended before he left Korea to study in the U.S., but that while he was away, Mun-ho had a relationship with Seon-hwa that ended some time before Heon-jun's very recent return to Korea. Because he never called Seon-hwa while he was away, despite his promise to her, Heon-jun doesn't know that she had a relationship with Mun-ho. Retrospectively (from his questions about Seon-hwa and the photos that he took that morning), we realize that Heon-jun has come to visit Mun-ho in hopes of learning from him where Seon-hwa lives so he can re-establish the relationship with her that ended before he left to study abroad.

We can infer this chronology from the conversation--Mun-ho claims not to know anything about Seon-hwa, then says he heard she was working in a bar having earlier worked in a 'club room' as a hostess. He doesn't mention himself in talking about her, but his reluctance to accompany Heon-jun to vist Seon-hwa suggests the true source of his knowledge about her.

To return to the flashbacks, each ends at the end of the each man's relationship with Seon-hwa. That's apparent for Heon-jun because of the airport scene; it's less clear at the end of Mun-ho's flashback although the conversation on the restaurant terrace about the puffiness of his face and Seon-hwa's question "Did it go well yesterday?" as well as the unhappy looks of their faces imply that Mun-ho may have had an argument with his wife about his affair with Seon-hwa which ended with his agreement to break off the affair. Their detached looks after sex further implies that they are ending their relationship. From Seon-hwa's hairstyle we might infer that she looks this way because she has dropped out of school to work in a 'club room.'

In addition to being parallel, The flashbacks are structurally important because their order is the only guide viewers have to the key points of the trio's entire history. And realizing this, we might guess that Mun-ho didn't invite Heon-jun into his house at the beginning of the film because he feared that his wife might say something about Seon-hwa to him.

Marc Raymond said...


Nice analysis, I think you're right on most of your details, and I especially like the last comment about why Munho doesn't want Heonjun to see his wife. Of course, during their conversation, he tries to deflect it onto him, saying Heonjun hugged with wife "American-style", a typical xenophobic transference of guilt.

I'm still wondering about the reasons for almost deliberately deceiving the audience about the temporal order though, unless maybe I'm just less sharp than the average viewer. Part of this seems a play with narrative that Hong had explored even more radically in THE VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE, but it seems suggestive as well of a subjective/ objective mixing meant to keep the audience off balance and destroy any clear confidence. Although I never made the connections and deductions you made, something about these scenes, especially the cafe scene, were unusual in a way I couldn't describe or explain.

I'm curious about your more general thoughts and opinions on the film.

Marshall Deutelbaum said...

I know from being a regular reader of your blog that you are sharper than the average viewer. Average viewers are bored by Hong’s films because they think nothing happens in them. Cinematically sophisticated viewers define Hong as an art film auteur very much like Eric Rohmer. They assume they understand Hong’s films because they understand Rohmer’s subtlety. You’re sharper than them, too, because you sense there’s something more to Hong’s films. I think Hong’s films have to be approached with as few suppositions as possible. His films are strikingly different from one another; indeed, the first three are the only films I’ve ever encountered that have to be taken apart and reassembled in order to be understood. For example, Hong doesn’t use crosscutting in any of his films, but the movements in the shots of the 2 characters in Hong’s second film who spend the same day in Kangwon Province without ever meeting are so carefully composed that if alternated they constitute a perfectly standard stretch of crosscutting consisting of more than 60 shots. Viewers who assume that Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors offers two conflicting versions of a couples’ romantic history and, therefore, is like other ambiguous films they have seen, will never examine the film carefully enough to realize that once they are combined, what seem like two conflicting versions of the same events seen from two points of view are actually a single chronological history of the couple with only a couple of minor discrepancies. Rearranging the chronological order of Mun-ho’s meetings with Seon-hwa is quite minor in comparison.
Perhaps the symmetrical repetition of the restaurant scene is unusually striking because the narrative becomes somewhat asymmetrical once the characters leave Seon-hwa’s apartment. She and Heon-jun disappear while the focus shifts entirely to Mun-ho and his students. When Seon-hwa and Heon-jun reappear, Mun-ho is gone. When Seon-hwa wonders aloud whether Mun-ho did not wait for them because he was angry, Heon-jun leaves explaining that because the night before she treated him badly. He adds, “I didn’t sleep, not a wink!” (from this I assume that he heard what went on between Seon-hwa and Mun-ho –remember that the dog pushed open the door of the bedroom Heon-jun was in after Seon-hwa and Mun-ho went into the other bedroom? Heon-jun is disillusioned with Seon-hwa, either because he now knows that she and Mun-ho were lovers while he was away, or because he realizes that there is no chance that he can reconcile with Seon-hwa.) Seon-hwa and Heon-jun disappear from the narrative which continues solely, and perhaps unexpectedly, with Mun-ho.
The narrative takes up what Mun-ho told Heon-jun was his “old dream,” getting tenure at his university. Now that the narrative has disposed of Heon-jun’s hope for reconciling with Seon-hwa, it presents the threat to Mun-ho’s realization of his desire. Muh-ho accepts Kyunghee’s offer of sex after the end of the meal they shared with other students. However, Minsoo, a male student who argued with Min-ho during the meal, follows them and interrupts them with a knock on their hotel room door and a cell phone call to Seon-hwa. Min-ho knows that if Minsoo tells people that his professor has had sex with a student, Min-ho will have little chance for tenure. Thus the film ends, as it began, with Min-ho worrying about keeping hidden a sexual relationship.

Marc Raymond said...


Thanks for the comments, and I agree with much of what you say here, especially around how to approach Hong. I think many fall into the trap of reading Hong through art cinema strategies; this is especially true of VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE. An example would be Hye Seung Chung and David Scott Diffrient's essay in the collection SEOUL SEARCHING, which reads the split narrative of VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE a little too neatly as "he said, she said", although I do like the piece and learned from it (they picked up things I missed).

That said, although we need to approach Hong with as few suppositions as possible (as you say), Hong is also trying to lure us into these readings. That's the fascination for me. The films seem so simple. Rohmer is mentioned a lot in relation to Hong, but I think of Bresson (admittedly, I've seen little Rohmer, which I need to correct).

I've just discovered your writings on Hong via the Criterion forum topic. Look forward to reading them shortly.

So far this has been a two-way discussion. Any other thoughts from others? It's still early in the month.

Marshall Deutelbaum said...


I think your sense of Bresson's influence is right on. Hong's film is simpler, lacking a retrospectively wiser voice-over narrator, but has a similar structure To Bresson's "Pickpocket." In both films a main character is unaware of something in the past that, that if he were aware of, would change how he acts in the present.

I also agree with you that Hong is testing his audience, challenging viewers to perceive what is happening in his films without the filter of their long-standing preconceptions. So, if we take up his challenge we may very well become more perceptive viewers.

I'd like to hear what others think about "Woman is the Future of Man," so I'll be quiet for a while.

weepingsam said...

I've been putting off commenting - or even reading too closely - until I could see it again... now that I have, I hope I can add something....

First - I find the things you have mentioned to be quite interesting, too... it's notable how far Hong extends his doubling strategies - the 2 friends, their two flashbacks, their two passes at the waitress... the purple scarf and the red scarf (that's actually tripled at least, since there's the shot of Sunhwa as a kid with a red scarf)... or the ending - the way Munho and Kyunghee's tryst repeats the story she told in the bar (picking up a man, taking him to a filthy place, etc...) Or just the repeated images of people literally retracing their steps: Heonjun walking backwards and forwards in the snow, Munho leaving with him and immediately turning to go back - etc...

I'll also note in reference to Hong's precursors the importance of Edward Yang - the complex time structures, with complicated relationships... And that the scene with Sunhwa's new hairdo is almost a straight repeat of a scene in THAT DAY ON THE BEACH...

Anyway - nice conversation here, and I hope to contribute a bit more over the weekend...

Marc Raymond said...

Thanks for the comments, sam, I like that you mentioned Yang, since I thought Hong's first film, THE DAY A PIG FELL IN THE WELL, was influenced by Yang's THE TERRORIZERS.

And yes, the repetitions are indeed everywhere. I'm about to write a short post of two others that puzzle and intrigue me.

Looking forward to hearing more from you if you get a chance.