Monday, March 16, 2009

Two Shots That Intrigue(d)? Me

Just thought I'd mention a couple of shots that intrigue me, shots that are seemingly meaningless.

One is Munho going back and asking his wife to let him in at the beginning of the film:

Another is the shot of Seon-hwa arriving to meet Mun-ho and Heon-jun:

When re-examining the film, both of these moments seemed difficult to place. And perhaps, I thought, they are not meant to be. But, the more I thought and read, the more this seemed unlikely. In a film as pared down as this one (even by Hong's standards), it is highly unlikely that they don't serve some purpose. Then, with the mentioning of repetitions, I noted that both shots have their doubles.

The shots of Mun-ho are subtly replayed at the end of the film, when Mun-ho's male student Min-woo approaches Mun-ho and Kyung-hee in the hotel room:

And the shot of Seon-hwa arriving can be seen as a mirror of the early scene in which the woman Mun-ho and Heon-jun gaze at before their flashbacks finally exits the scene in a car:


Now, we can see these as formal repetitions that work as a whole to offset the quotidian realism of the narrative. And/or we can start analyzing these for deeper meanings. Part of me wants to avoid the later, to remain intrigued by the shots instead of forcing an explanation. I remember watching Lynch's Mulholland Dr. and really enjoying it, but then not loving the film nearly as much (to the point of even being bored) once I had a certain framework in which to read and explain what was going on. And the other hand, one cannot and should not shut down these critical impulses. One can only hope that any given film is strong enough to resist their assault.

7 comments:

Marshall Deutelbaum said...

Marc,

Please explain why the two shots of Mun-ho and Min-woo walking toward the camera, and the shot of the woman we see getting into a car and the shot we see of Seon-hwa getting out of a car, merit being defined as "doubles" and "formal repetitions." By what criteria, in other words, do these pairs deserve to be defined as anything more than being vaguely similar?

Marc Raymond said...

Marshall,

You mean it's not obvious? Yes, thanks for pointing out that I overstated the case here, or at least my intention with the post. I didn't mean to state these formal repetitions too strongly, only to suggest a possible connection to other parts of the film. This resulted from the fact that the shots seemed rather blank and meaningless on their own, and in a film as controlled as this one, there just seemed to be something I was missing. Perhaps I'm grasping at straws, but I'll try to explain my reasoning a little further.

The connection of the shot of Mun-ho and the shot of Min-woo seems strongest to me, although it only occurred to me through a close reading of the film and writing other posts for this site. As we find out later, when Mun-ho goes back to get his wallet, he claims that he caught his wife smoking. He laughs this off, and states that he is more forgiving of her flaws now, that he is just a human being. This attitude is a way for him to justify his own indiscretions, one of which is occurring at the end of the film when Mun-ho approaches the hotel room in a similar manner. It should also be noted the cultural connotations of women smoking in Korea, which often is seen as a signifier of being sexually available when it takes place in public. In a way, Mun-ho has caught her cheating, just as he will be at the end. Again, I'm not sure how convincing this analysis is, but even if it is totally wrong, it was generated in my mind by all the other repetitions that occur and all the other connections that seem to abound in this film.

The other example seems less meaningful, but nevertheless another one of the coincidences of which Hong is so fond. Clearly, the woman Mun-ho and Heon-jun look at when they start their flashbacks is connected in our mind with Seon-hwa, since this woman almost seems to trigger their memories of her. Thus, the first time we see Seon-hwa in the present tense of the story, it is this seemingly unnecessary shot (over 50 seconds long) of her being dropped off in a car that looks almost identical to the one the other woman exited. I have nothing else to say about this repetition, other than it seems to me to be unlikely not to have been consciously patterned by Hong.

Marshall Deutelbaum said...

Marc,

Thanks for the explanations! They are excellent illustrations of why it's best to assume that nothing is obvious. The frame captures of Mun-ho and Minsoo made me take you literally when you wrote that the shots were similar. It turns out from your explanation for pairing Min-ho and Min-soo that the frame grabs are irrelevant to your argument for claiming the men's actions are similar. And if the frame grabs are irrelevant to your argument is there still a basis for claiming the men's actions are "formal repetitions"?

As one can tell from their wheel covers, the two cars are different makes that happen to be similar in color. The colors of the women's clothing--the woman from the restaurant in a purple coat and dark shawl and Seon-hwa in a purple shawl and a dark coat--suggest the sort of connection you sense, though the visual cues may also be Hong's sly encouragement to us to see, momentarily, a connection where none exists.

Marc Raymond said...

Marshall,

I'm not sure I would say the shots are irrelevant to the discussion, if for no other reason than their relation to each other provoked my linking of their actions. Although the shots are only vaguely similar, I still do think they are meant to evoke each other, as much for the differences as well as similarities: left/right, outdoors/indoors, rich/poor.

Your comment, "the visual cues may also be Hong's sly encouragement to us to see, momentarily, a connection where none exists" is one I've been thinking about. Are you saying that in a film such as this, there is a single correct meaning and explanation for the events? If Hong as a director is placing those visual cues there, he is making a connection. Perhaps what you mean is there is no clear thematic resonance a la art cinema reading strategies. But Hong is deliberately playing with this assumption, and those who take these cues and make thematic connections cannot really be considered wrong, even if they may not be the most fruitful avenues to explore. As I mentioned before, I disagree with readings of VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE that read the film as a split male/female Rashomon-like narrative, but certainly the argument can be made for it, and it is one possible meaning Hong seems to want to provoke, given how familiar he is with art cinema tradition.

Marshall Deutelbaum said...

Marc,

What you term a "reading strategy" may be a "misreading strategy" encouraged by a filmmaker to challenge a viewer's perception. Hong does this in "Virgin" when it seems that it must be one utensil or another that is knocked to the floor, but not both. In fact, a careful "reading" demonstrates that there is only a single correct "reading:" both utensils are knocked to the floor. Similarly,at other times both napkins and chopsticks are knocked over and, not one or the other, but both men rush to the bathroom. Conversely, both sets of numbered days are not identical, even though Hong (who knows they are not) encourages us to think that they are. In all of these situations, what seems obvious is demonstrably erroneous. And an erroneous "reading" is fruitless unless its error is recognized and corrected. Sometimes, in short, there may a single correct "reading" of an event.

Marc Raymond said...

For me, with Hong, mysteries still abound, and I can never bring myself to fully confident correct meanings, which is why I consider him a post-structuralist filmmaker. Perhaps more re-viewings of his films will produce more correct readings. I kinda hope not though.

weepingsam said...

I can see the repetitions in these shots. Part of the reason, I think, is that the film is so full of repetition (repetition with variation), and repetition is such a fundamental formal building block of the movie, that it encourages us to see the parallels between shots. We are trained to look for the references to other scenes, shots, characters, etc., in almost everything. So here - I notice, for instance, looking at women/cars shots: the car is similarly colored; the first car moves left to right, the second right to left (at least once the camera pans...); the first woman gets in, the second woman gets out; both women start behind the car and circle the front (right of the car in the first, left in the second), before getting in or not; both wear scarfs; the first woman has left a restaurant where the two men were eating - the second enters a restaurant where the two men are eating... and the men are seated on opposite sides of the table in the two restaurants; in the first they are in front of a window, in the second in front of a wall - the first woman looks like the younger Seon-hwa, with her longer hair, and triggers flashbacks for both men... etc.

It seems to me that almost every moment in the film probably has echoes of something else in the film. The echoes can be visual, the compositions or mise-en-scene (as the several scenes with characters facing each other across a table, in front of a window, or not - or the two lovemaking scenes, composed almost identically, complete with the corner of a table, with cigarettes/lighter/ashtray, tucked into the right edge of the frame...); they can be in the decor or costuming, like the various scarves that run through the film; they can be situations - a man waiting outside a door (Marc's other example)... I think the obvious, explicit repetitions encourage us to look for others, and the more we look, the more we see....