Saturday, February 28, 2009

WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN: A Film by Hong Sang-soo

Woman is the Future of Man is Hong Sang-soo's fifth film, and it is the sixth of his films that I encountered. Thus it is impossible for me to analyze this work without Hong's other films in my mind. In particular, in what ways does this text act as a transition between what came before and what would come after?

A couple of things stick out. It is Hong's shortest film at 87 minutes. All of his films before this were at least 20 minutes longer. This is partly because of production problems:

"There was a large section where it was shot out of sequence. It was a reminiscing autumn scene, but in the editing room the content wasn't the problem but the beat was too loose. No matter how we tried, we couldn't control the pace by editing. During that process, the part up to the present ending was perceived as a whole and thought it was neat this way. I was lucky" (Huh, 73)

As a result, the story is much more direct and condensed than his earlier films, and the structure is simpler as well. This extends into the style of the film. For example, the Average Shot Length (ASL) of Hong's films are:

The Day a Pig Fell in the Well : 24 seconds
The Power of Kangwon Province : 33 s
The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors : 53 s
Turning Gate : 58 s
Woman is the Future of Man : 99 s
Tale of Cinema : 64 s
Woman on the Beach : 71 s

Hong's earlier films have a more expressive editing style that he gradually moves away from. This reaches its zenith in Woman is the Future of Man, which contains only 51 shots. This is also the last film that Hong makes before he begins using the zoom lens to enter into a scene. There is no movement forward or backward in the entire film, either through editing or through the zoom (with one exception I discuss below). All the camera movement is lateral, and has a strangely mechanical feel that is not unlike the zoom of the later films. In other words, this is the most minimalist film from a director known as part of the whole "asian minimalist" school. After this film, Hong would increase his cutting and add a zoom lens in order to present more variety and overt directorial expression, although he would not return to the relatively (I stress relatively) heavy editing of his first films. I don't think it would be inaccurate to refer to Woman is the Future of Man as Hong degree zero.

However, this is countered by one element in the film: the use of music. This is Hong's first time working with the composer Jeong Yong-jin, and it marks a turning point in his scoring practice. Music was used very sparingly in his earlier works. In his first film, The Day a Pig Fell in the Well, there is an alienating, modernist score played at the beginning, an overt effect very much at odds with the filmmaker Hong would become. By the time of his fourth film, Turning Gate, music had disappeared completely with the exception of the end credits. But when he started working with Jeong, music starts to take on a greater importance in Hong's work, as Hong has acknowledged:

"In the past, I rarely met with the composers and recognized their independence. I wanted to try something different with Jeong Yong-jin because he is young and communicates well with me. He isn't the type of composer who would say 'leave the music to me.' I discuss things with him more often than any other composer I worked with." (69)

The use of music gives the impression of being quite prominent in the film, although in fact there is not a great deal of screen time with musical accompaniment. Besides the opening and closing credits, there are 10 other short bursts of non-diegetic music (according to my count), each lasting around 15-20 seconds. But the music does not act as an "unheard melody" that is meant to go unnoticed. Instead, Hong uses music to end shots and transition into a new scene, and thus makes it hard to ignore. Not being well-versed in music, I'd be curious to read any thoughts people may have about this new aspect and how it may or may not be an expressive technique to counter the overall minimalism of the visual style.

So, what is the effect of this greater austerity? Well, perhaps perversely, it made me think more about the very few short takes that occur. If you'll forgive one last dose of empirical data, the 51 shots can be broken down as follows:

0-10 sec: 4 shots
0-30 sec: 4 shots
30-60 sec: 10 shots
60-90 sec: 9 shots
90-120 sec: 11 shots
120-180 sec: 6 shots
180-240 sec: 5 shots
240 sec-over: 2 shots

Thus, Woman is the Future of Man features more shots over three minutes than it does shots under ten seconds. So, is there any particular significance to these short takes, the way we would expect especially long takes in a more conventionally edited work to take on greater importance? As it turns out, I do think these shots are more loaded or let us say expressive than ordinary, although in one instance I think this is something of a parody. During Mun-ho's flashback, he tries to force himself on Seon-hwa and she gets upset, yelling at him that he, just like Heon-jun, is an animal who is only interested in sex. The next shot is the shortest of the film, of a chrysanthemum with two bees. The obviousness of this symbolism I find rather amusing, especially since the rest of the film is so empty of this kind of loaded and singular meaning. Even the conversation between Mun-ho and Seon-hwa that follows makes explicit reference, with Mun-ho pointing out how beautiful the flower is and Seon-hwa stating that it seems to attract the bees. This reduction of the chracters to a natural world of sexuality both conveys a certain accuracy in terms of their behaviour while at the same time being overly simplistic. If the film shows nothing else, it is how human sexuality is far too complicated to be reduced to the level of bees.

Another short take provides the only example in the film (at least that I recall) where we move into a scene. Mun-ho and Heon-jun are sitting on Seon-hwa's couch and Mun-ho looks at a picture. Hong cuts to his point-of-view of Seon-hwa as a little girl, dressed in traditional Korean clothes. Agian, this rare short take and even rarer cut into a scene makes this shot even more heavy with meaning. The attempt by Heon-jun to return to his past is an attempt to place Seon-hwa is this place of purity and innocence, similar to his attempt to "cleanse" her by having sex in the hotel room earlier. Woman seem to be the future of man only because men seem unable to deal with the future as opposed to the past.

Also of interest is the fact that one of these short takes recalls an earlier one. The first short take of the film occurs at the 12 minute mark, and takes place immediately after Seon-hwa has gone with her former high school friend in a cab. We see her enter a restaurant, where she will meet with Heon-jun and tell him that she was raped by this man. In another short take later in the film, we see this same space from a different angle in the first of three pictures taken by Heon-jun that he is showing Seon-hwa. This is an easy detail to miss; I only noticed after going back and looking at the short takes and trying to interpret their significance. But I think it is important. This repetition emphasizes the dream-like nature of the whole narrative, and also, for myself, is part of a greater reconsidering of the whole first half of the narrative. This will be the subject of my next post.

Huh Moonyung, Hong Sang-soo (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007)


HarryTuttle said...

This is a really interesting article. Thanks for taking the time to time these ASL.
I wish I had seen Woman is the Future of Man more recently to comment more precisely.

The latest I've seen were Night and Day and Woman on the Beach, the latter being my second favourite of his, behind The Virgin Stripped... A really great great film!

Hong Sang-soo has defined in a few films one of the most identifiable "personal style" in contemporary cinema. Some say he repeats himself... but I think he treats the ambiguous love affairs of today like nobody else can.

Marc Raymond said...

Thanks Harry. I think Hong does indeed repeat himself, but at the same time each of his films simultaneously moves in a new direction. he is almost constantly transitioning in some way. I agree with your assessment of VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE, my second favorite behind NIGHT AND DAY. Thus far, those are the only two Hong films that I think are absolutely top tier. All the others are in the near masterpiece category for me. But, as I remember one critic once stating about Hong, it seems impossible to imagine he'll ever make a bad film.

I would venture to say that nobody is a more distinctive director than Hong (there may be others that are as distinctive).

Whitney said...

First, I would like to say that I am a newcomer to this blog, and I find the concept great and so I went out and watched this film. I had never seen a Hong film before so thank you for the introduction.
Among other things, I found the pacing in the film very interesting. Time was laid out in a very casual, meandering way that I found very intriguing. I will definitely check out some of his other films.