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
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:
0-30 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)