Discovering Hong Sang-soo

Discovery and Rohmer-alike and a setting of scenes

I first discovered South Korean director Hong Sang-soo in one of my many wormhole journeys studying the latest cinema winners. As is a common practice for me, being an international awards geek, once I’ve seen a few of the big movies, I typically look for the winners that were just a little under the major ones of any given year. Hashtag obsessive. I know. Scouring Cannes Film Fests of the last decade, I discovered Hong Sang-soo’s film Hahaha won Un Certain Regard in 2010. Upon reading the synopsis, I was intrigued.

What drove me deeper is the critical comparison of Hong to a personal favorite of mine, director Eric Rohmer (more on him some other time). And, to certain degrees, it is right to draw comparison: relatively static camera shots, with small movement and some zoom, primarily dominate his work; romantic complications of affairs, various trysts, and unrequited loves; realist slice-of-life dramas that border on a pleasant sort of tedium and intense minimalism.

Hong does, however, introduce elements not seen in Rohmer’s romances and, pausing on the comparisons, he stands in his own light. Often his films play with chronology, structurally are broken into vignettes, bits of films that come around to forming unique puzzle pieces (The Power of Kangwon Province), or perhaps are variations of the same plot taken from different vantages (Right Now, Wrong Then). Diverging from Rohmer, also, he withholds heavier philosophical dialogues until needed, and rather coats his incredibly simple stories with, dare I say, banal conversations—about food, life, health, travel, name something—in settings of eating and drinking, walking and talking. When I describe it this plainly, I mean it that plain. To the unaccustomed viewer, one may be left scratching their head, and I don’t blame them.

What’s more, I find him technically similar to another school of film I enjoy: he garners some of the virtues of mumblecore—quick dialogue, characters over plotting, organic and natural feeling, low-budget indie production, etc. Hong is quite prolific, shoots fast and does few takes, which allows him to produce sometimes more than one film in a year. In 2017, he produced three, for example. With the advent of digital, his production has been generally upped. That being said, his films range in degree of strength, and watching one film may not prove that you will like or dislike other ones in his expanding oeuvre.

An abstract illustration by Luke Bartolomeo.

…dramas that border on a pleasant sort of tedium and intense minimalism.

The best way I imagine enjoying him is on a rainy or snowy day drinking a nice warm cup of tea, nuzzled into your favorite blanket, your best friend or significant other cuddled close. Hong has that kind of feeling. Time slows to a crawl. Life gets smaller, simpler; everything closes in, cocooned. We must venture on a walk with our new friends on screen, drink a coffee or tea at a small South Korean cafe and listen to a quaint simple story. Later, our character meets up with another friend. They walk to the park, a few words are exchanged. They stare out at some distant point as a desire is revealed, a sudden flower of revelation blooms to expression. They tell this friend that they love the wrong person or haven’t met the right person yet. We see them later walking along and they run into an old flame who they decide to lunch with. It goes no farther than that, but the memory remains across their faces on their long and lonely walk back home through gray streets and alleyways of some small town. That night they dine at a table of friends. It is a intimate gathering. They drink, laugh, another idea springs to mind on love and desire. People share their opinions and the night ends in tipsied stupors.

Of course, my approximations (and amalgamations) do not do justice to the real thing. And Hong Sang-soo’s intimacy cannot be expressed so easily. It’s in the quiet, sparse, the bare musical scores of (a lot of times) midi instruments. There’s something almost innocent in the making of his films, as if his productions are themselves trying to retract from the intensity of passionate affairs and lost love with an air of the sentimental dreamer, but never quite succeeding. The simplicity and minimalism of people’s lives is inevitably punctuated by the brewing thoughts inside their hearts and minds that finally bubble to the surface. These are the moments I long for. He does them delicately and timely, and keeps me waiting for them. He succeeds at meandering his characters into quiet desperation and letting them loose when he needs to.

Some foreseeable issues

There are, however, a few foreseeable issues that may arise for some viewers: a) he becomes too self-referential of film itself and of himself (characters who just happen to be directors or actors or in film production) b) how many times has he made the same movie? c) can anyone in his films do more than eat and drink and walk and talk and think about love? In addition, his films are largely hetero-normative dealings, his focus on getting at love by way of relations involving the push-pull sexual dynamics of males and females and their desires for each other. It’s a framework he studies from every possible angle of understanding, working it over in his mind, with differing nuances of expression. This might prove tiring for some, especially in the ever-enlarging plethora of other important perspectives and voices on gender/sexuality being represented in cinema.

An abstract illustration by Luke Bartolomeo.

…his productions are themselves trying to retract from the intensity of passionate affairs and lost love with an air of the sentimental dreamer…

Hong Sang-soo is certainly not for everyone, of course, but I want to make the case to at least give some of his work a chance, even if the framework he’s dealing in has been trod ad infinitum. His engagement on the basics of human relations from his own quiet and meditative angle can, watching enough of his films, almost become a soothing presence, and an affirmation that life is filled with the epics of loves gained and lost; he reclaims grandiose passion from the hands of big studio productions, where even slice-of-life romances can be overly stylized, and readjusts it to the stark reality of the everyday. That might just be enough to enjoy him.

Final words and recommended viewings

Hong Sang-soo is unassuming, but there lies deep power in the soft and lackluster, in the poetic soulful longing of what presents at surface as something less than it really is. A viewer, however, may wonder if his characters are perhaps simpletons lacking the emotional awareness to discover deeper bonds to what could make love work for them, endlessly wandering at its fringes trying to get in. Or, have they drifted into a sort of malaise brought on by middle-income privilege? Maybe, they the idea of desire but never want it fulfilled, thus their entrapment in the seeming mediocre worlds they inhabit. All this can be put to the jury. There’s evidence that someone could tease out these types of remarks, and find his characters uninteresting, bland, or lacking.

But I think I start again from the tender presentation of humanity, how it is brought down to the viewer’s level. Seeming nothings are themselves the explosive points from which these small lives pivot in their love and desires, iceberg tips that suggest the macro existential concerns: how they make choices and how are they living. Self-reflecting, and like his film’s narratives, we see that desire changes slowly and over long periods, with certain notable spikes along the journey, and the results of those desires mulled in silences, focused quiets. His films bare out that slowness of wanting and reflecting, and like any impactful art become forms that we hold against our own lives to discover where and how we’ve changed.

An abstract illustration by Luke Bartolomeo.

Hong Sang-soo is unassuming, but there lies deep power in the soft and lackluster…

So, give him a try. If anything, you find the coming forecast three long days of rain or snow, then check out one of my, as of now, favorites. Bundle up, find a friend, and get the tea going.

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