Match Frame

Thoughts from an American editor and filmmaker in New Zealand about film and video production and post-production. Plus whatever else I feel like talking about.

Location: Balmoral, Auckland, New Zealand

A work in progress.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Hong Sangsoo

So recently there was a Blog-A-Thon on film criticism, and Tim Lucas (editor of VIDEO WATCHDOG) had a particularly interesting post to me. The piece concludes with this sentence:

In short, I now write criticism primarily to educate myself, to better know myself, and it's been my good luck that a select group of others seem to get something out of eavesdropping on the process.

I'm not participating in this Blog-A-Thon per se - I've avoided trying to enmesh myself in the world of film bloggers, as I'm way too intermittent and less convinced of my input, plus professional conflict of interest could arise etc. - but for various reasons "know myself" has been a theme for the past week. And as a filmmaker, an editor, and a guy who loves films, there's definitely an amount of "me" that is wrapped up in the films that I love.

So I'm going to dedicate some intermittent (but hopefully reasonably frequent) posts over the next chunk of time to various filmmakers that I love, with an attempt to explain what it is I love about them. Maybe you'll get something out of this, check out a film that I think is great and wonderful; for me, it's just a chance to really ask myself, what is it, ultimately, that makes this medium so important for me?


Hong Sangsoo is the first person that comes to mind, not because he's my favorite filmmaker, but because I saw his film WOMAN ON THE BEACH tonight at the Korean Film Festival. And also because, more than any other filmmaker I know, his films seem to all inform each other, despite no character overlap.

A bit of background: Hong is a Korean filmmaker who's been making films for a decade now. I still haven't seen his first film, THE DAY A PIG FELL INTO THE WELL, but I've seen all the rest. I started with ON THE OCCASION OF REMEMBERING THE TURNING GATE (aka TURNING GATE), which I bought on DVD off of many recommendations and which blew me off my seat. Since then, I've seen WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN in the 2004 NZ festival (shivering like mad, so I think I underappreciated it); THE POWER OF KANGWON PROVINCE and VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE BY HER BACHELORS from a 3-DVD boxset of Hong's early works (it also contains WELL, but apparently it has bad subtitles); TALE OF CINEMA at this year's NZ Festival, and tonight his latest film, the aforementioned WOMAN ON THE BEACH. I say all this not just to mention all his films by name but because I'm not sure there's another director that I've seen as many films by in three years, and certainly not as large a proportion of a director's filmography.

Most Hong films have a similar feeling or structure, with a small number of characters, uncannily parallel or rhyming situations, and a relationship-based drama slowly unfolding. His protagonists are almost always flawed, most often men who are insular and stubborn and don't really get things about life, coming either closest to or farthest from complete honesty while being drunk. (And if it's a Hong film, you bet they'll be drinking. Probably a lot. Although I notice most Korean cinema has lots of drinking, so there's that.) There's nothing resembling a hero, and any audience identification is largely of the uncomfortable "God, why do I have to watch someone make the same stupid mistakes I make" variety, not the wish-fulfillment of adopting a heroic point of view. As the same time, though, the films aren't also abject debasements of caricatures of humans a la Todd Solondz; Hong's not willing to give you just one side of anybody. The eponymous character in WOMAN ON THE BEACH has one scene in particular that made me disgusted with and sick of her, but yet the next scene (the morning after) she was astonishingly gentle and kind. There's a monologue a character has in WOMAN ON THE BEACH about the building of character as defining a series of points, and one suspects that this is part of Hong's strategy with his films.

His visual style is simultaneously simple and complex. There are very few closeups: most scenes play out in extended master shots. In his last two films, Hong uses the zoom lens as a technique to reframe within a shot, and I think he did something special with it in WOMAN ON THE BEACH. Other than that, his style is very unflashy but also distinctive, deliberate in feel. There's a depth to almost all of his shots - Hong virtually never uses shallow depth of field - and the result is that nothing is really distinguished in the frame as being a particular point of interest by that technique. Nor by lighting, or often even by framing. The characters are there; you just have to decide which one is important to look at, and why.

Another strange thing about Hong films - they're the only films I've seen where it feels like the film itself has an inertia apart from the characters. The relatively minor level of drama and real-time observation of most of his films (as I recall, VIRGIN plays with a nonlinear time frame) means that you're never really sure where you are in the "story" per se, and often the film defies what you think the story might be. A seemingly major character vanishes halfway through WOMAN ON THE BEACH, never to be referred to again, because he's no longer at the beach. It's as if the film has set up shop there, in sort of a permanent present tense. Sort of similarly, TURNING GATE has a two-part structure, with its male protagonist in each wooing a different woman, the events of the first time echoing his actions in the second. TALE OF CINEMA, meanwhile, turns itself inside out halfway through the film when you suddenly discover you've been watching a film within a film. The three-act structure is left entirely adrift in these films: there's no doubt they're structured - I imagine Hong makes diagrams, perhaps, though maybe I'm way off-base - but their structure is felt more in the rigor of the filmmaking than because there's any resemblance to traditional film structure.

I don't know if any of this makes these films sound watchable, but they are - they may be slow for some, and too "talky" for others, but they're certainly not offputting and are sometimes quite funny in their quiet observations. (Also, several of them include pretty explicit sex, if that encourages you, though BEACH rejects this, framing its sex more chastely than your average rock video.) They're not the sorts of films with big emotional payoffs at the end; in fact, it's rare that I've had a really immediate emotional reaction to an individual Hong film, even to my favorite (TURNING GATE). But they seem, more than the work of any other filmmaker I know, to be obsessed with understanding why it is that we act how we act, without using any artifices of filmmaking to force a false or simplistic response to the question, and because of this they resonate longer, strike a deeper chord, and remain with me long after most films have left my memory. That Hong so often chooses to depict filmmakers as characters in his films further reinforces the sense that he is not working from an abstract concept of humanity to make characters but digging into his life experience to grapple with the questions of how we live, and maybe how we can do better than we have. As a character in TURNING GATE says: "Even though it's difficult being human, let's not become monsters, ok?" (As sentimental of a notion as you'll get in a Hong movie.)

Anyone interested in digging deeper into the world of Hong Sangsoo is strongly encouraged to check out this website. In terms of DVD, though, unless you're up from importing from Asia you're out of luck at the moment, though WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN is due out soon in the States. If you are up for importing, YesAsia has TURNING GATE for $9.99 on DVD, which is as fine an introduction to Hong as I can suggest. They also have the 3 DVD set of his early works for reasonably cheap as well.


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