April 17, 2012

Hong Sang Two

by Vadim Rizov

Oki's Movie

2005's A Tale of Cinema inaugurated the second phase of Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo's career (Hong 2.0), introducing basic components returned to and toyed with in every subsequent film: drunken directors who swear to change their lives before lapsing a scene later, women alternately being idealized/treated badly but granted final telling-off authority, events repeating themselves with no explanation, goofily inelegant zoom shots. Oki's Movie (screening in NYC through April 22nd) is an excellent introduction for novices, distilling and compacting the familiar elements of Hong's last seven years into 80 minutes, his shortest-ever feature by eight minutes.

The first of four parts is a short film by Jingu (Lee Sunkyun)—still a college student, but already filming predictive nightmares of his onscreen alter-ego being accosted at a post-screening Q&A by the angry friend of a woman he callously broke up with. The last segment is directed by his crush/fellow student Oki (Jung Yumi). Jingu longs for Oki—at inebriated length, with melodramatic, near Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" outbursts—but never realizes he's involved in a love triangle with his rival film professor/mentor Professor Song (Moon Sungkeun).

Oki's Movie

Oki's Movie is relatively elegiac compared to the broad, buoyant near-farce of Hong's previous three films Night and Day, Like You Know It All and Hahaha—all taking place in spring or summer to Oki's Movie's winter. In her titular film within this film, Oki breaks two mountain hiking escapades—with Song on Dec. 31st, and with Jingu on New Year's—into lists of what both men remarked on or ignored, if they went to the bathroom, what they ate. Her willingness to recount events head-on (in a way neither man can) is bracing as Hong literally directs, as he never has before, from a woman's perspective.

In Hong's The Day He Arrives (opening this Friday in NYC), it's still winter in Seoul, but this time in black-and-white, low contrast and joylessly washed-out. Inactive director Seong-jun (Yu Jun-Sang) has come from the countryside to spend a few days in his former home base. He has modest plans designed to keep him out of trouble ("go sightseeing and buy some books"), but predictably a solitary meal in a restaurant turns into a drinking session with friendly film students. ("No one should drink alone.")

The Day He Arrives

The group recognize Seong-jun, who doesn't want to talk about his professional career and reasons for inactivity, then invites them to join him at an awesome, undisclosed place a taxi ride away. When they get out at a fruit stand, Seong-jun stumblingly lights up; like dwarf acolytes, the students do the same in unison. "Stop copying me!" Seong-jun screams and runs away, giving himself too much credit: his followers are the same type of repetitively self-abusing drunk male, who don't need to study him to resemble him.

Recently, Hong has taken considerable care to frequently include the outdoor world and natural light, even within interior scenes, placing diners and drinkers near windows with a good view. In The Day He Arrives, every bar Seong-jun visits is framed (in tight close-ups) without any windows, shutting out sunshine's warmth. His daily street run-ins with an actress he hasn't seen in a while are refreshingly devoid of embarrassing, ill-timed sexual propositions—a Hong trademark. Seong-jun departs after both of this film's hook-ups, commanding both women to forget him, keep diaries and never text him, even on his birthday, for both their good. "I'm going to keep an eye on you," a flirtatious woman he doesn't hook up with says. "I'm going to watch how you change."

The Day He Arrives

This remark seemingly triggers a slow but crippling realization: Seong-jun can't come into the city without every female encounter turning into another opportunity for sexual self-laceration. The unremarked-upon fact that every day he and his friends go the same places, in the same order, without remarking upon any similarities assumes a sinister, purgatorial aspect. In Oki's Movie, Jingu berates a woman who photographs him passed out on a bench. When Seong-jun is stopped by a woman's shy look, he grumblingly consents to pose. The last shot is a slow zoom in on Seong-jun's face, stuck in sheer spontaneous terror.

The color-drained interior chill of The Day He Arrives may mark a cautionary-tale conclusion to Hong 2.0, whose next film Another Country—with Isabelle Huppert, his first Western star, in three separate roles—may mark yet another leap. This may be the bleak end of a cycle, about a filmmaker abruptly plunging from vivid-anecdote terrain into the self-aware hell of a waking nightmare.

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Posted by ahillis at April 17, 2012 2:23 PM