A little Hong Sang-soo retrospective

If you find that watching a film by Eric Rohmer is like watching paint dry, South Korean director Hong Sang-soo (b. 1960) may not be for you. I happen to like Rohmer, a director Hong says he admires. Hong has been called the Woody Allen of Korea and like Allen accused of making the same film over and over again. The Allen comparison strikes me as a reach in any but the broadest of strokes. It was Rohmer who came to mind when I saw three films by Hong at the 41st Portland International Film Festival in 2018, all made the previous year. Last year's festival treated us to a fourth Hong film, the exquisite Hotel by the River (2018).


I am in the midst of my own little Hong Sang-soo retrospective. On Thursday I watched On the Beach at Night Alone and on Saturday Claire's Camera. Hotel by the River, The Day He Arrives (2011), and Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) are queued up at Kanopy.


The best films reward repeated viewing, just as the best poems and novels reward rereading. The first time through my focus is on what happens. Once that is settled I am more apt to pick up on aspects of character, dialogue, all manner of greater and lesser subtleties and sublimity that previously passed me by. I think now of the pleasure afforded by multiple viewings of The Seventh Seal, 8½, La Dolce Vita, Roshomon, Casablanca, and Annie Hall, to name a few off the top of my head.

On the Beach at Night Alone and Claire's Camera joined that company last week. Claire's Camera, set in Cannes during that festival, was the first of the three Hong films to screen at the 2018 Portland festival. I made a point of catching it because Isablle Huppert, a longtime favorite, played a lead character. The other lead was Kim Min-hee, an enchanting marvel of an actress who has been in all of Hong's recent films. Claire's Camera prompted me to see On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After, which screened later in the festival.


Somewhere along the way, probably while writing about these films for the blog's 2018 festival reviews, came a glimmer of recollection of an essay about Hong in a recent edition of The New York Review of Books. A little digging turned up Philip Lopate's The Discreet Charm of Hong Sang-soo (December 7, 2017), penned after the 2017 New York Film Festival featured On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After. Lopate was told that the festival's organizers also liked Claire's Camera but reluctantly turned it down "because one filmmaker taking three slots would be unseemly."


Biographical note. Hong was born in Seoul (Lopate says in 1961; IMBD and Wikipedia give 1960 as the year of his birth.) He has a BA from California College of Arts and Crafts and a master's degree from the Chicago Art Institute. "A professor at a Seoul University, he gets free rent there for his company (two employees) and relies on students as interns; he shoots on location without building sets and is able to hold costs of a feature film down to about $100,000" (Lopate).


My first take on Hong was that I rather liked his films but was not knocked out by them.

Claire's Camera in particular was engaging but slight. On the Beach and The Day After seemed to have more to them, but even then I did not yet know what to make of him. As with Rohmer, there is not much by way of action in a Hong film. Narrative to the extent that there is any is advanced primarily through dialogue, quite ordinary, everyday conversation and interaction punctuated sporadically by emotional, outbursts, often accompanied by conspicuous consumption of alcohol. The story may jump back and forth in time instead of proceeding in linear fashion. This is not always readily apparent. I picked up on it much more the second time around with Claire's Camera than I did the first time I saw it. Backstory and context tend to be scanty, suggested more than explicit, and likewise come mostly by way of dialogue. It can take a while to figure things out, and even then much remains problematic, provisional.


There is a great deal of talking, much eating, and more drinking, accompanied from time to time by what I think of as a quiet humor. Sometimes a peripheral figure unrelated to the story appears with comedic effect, as with the hotel window washer in On the Beach at Night Alone or the large, gray dog that pops up repeatedly in Claire's Camera. Extended still or almost still shots of someone seated alone with her thoughts in an otherwise empty theater or café, standing at a window or outside a café smoking a cigarette, strolling through a park or on a beach, running her hands over a plant, or kneeling and praying before crossing a footbridge are deftly, patiently orchestrated to convey emotion, melancholy, maybe even sublimity. When a Hong film ends my takeaway, again as with Rohmer, is that not much happened but it caught something of how life is in a way that becomes more profound and moving the more I reflect upon it.


Hong says he returns to the sames types of characters in film after film because it is convenient:


It's not that important that they are directors of films, do you know what I mean? I just know more about them. I don't have this need to go to different professions, different types of characters. What I do with these simple elementsif I can call them elementsin each film is importantMy temperament is to work with the things I know already, and then find new things. So a filmmaker is just one of these important, simple elements that I know very well. (IMBD bio)


I was much more taken with Claire's Camera when I watched it again last week. While not a major work by any stretch, it is really, really charming. Manhee (Kim Min-hee) works for a small film company whose staff is in Cannes for the festival. As the film open Manhee is fired by her boss because, she says, she learned that Manhee is dishonest, but she will not reveal more than that. Manhee is confused but accepts the firing stoically. She remains in Cannes because she is unable to change her budget-fare return ticket.


In the meantime, Claire (Huppert) is a teacher from Paris who is in Cannes because she has a friend whose film is being screened at the festival. While wandering around town taking photos with a little Polaroid camera and striking up conversations with strangers, she crosses paths with Manhee, Manhee's boss, and Director So, "a kind of drunkard" who says that ninety-five percent of the mistakes in his life were because of alcohol. Slowly, often indirectly, Manhee and we figure out why she was fired. Sexual encounters and affairs of the heart that went awry are at the bottom of it. Revelation brings a kind of irresolution. Then the film ends.


On the Beach at Night Alone draws on Hong's scandalous extramarital affair with the younger Kim Min-hee (b. 1982). The film opens in Hamburg where Young-hee (Kim), an actress, is vacationing while picking up the pieces following the breakup of an affair with a married man referred to throughout the film only as the director (per Lopate; I picked up that the city was in Europe but not that it was Hamburg or even in Germany). She strolls around the city in the company of a Korean woman. The sky is gray, the women dressed for cold and the possibility of rain. Young-hee draws the face of "him," the director, with a stick in sand on the beach. There is a favorite park with an overlay of fog where she likes to walk, a city market, a bookstore where she buys a book of music from a bookseller who speaks English. They have dinner at the apartment of the other woman's friends, a couple. The woman confides in Young-hee that she has feelings for the man but is too reserved to act on them. She envies Young-hee's openness and lack of inhibition.

The first part concludes with the screen darkening and credits flashing is if the film itself were ending. Part two is set in a small town on the coast of South Korea where Young-hee has retreated to get away from busy Seoul as she continues to sort herself out in a directionless fashion. Maybe it is her hometown or another place where she once lived. She has friends there, an IT guy, a man who runs a small café with a woman, maybe his wife or girlfriend, and a woman named Jun-hee who may also be an actress. Her recent life has been a mystery to them. They heard she had an affair with married man and disappeared for a while. They ask why she is back, how she is doing, and always if she would like something to eat or drink.

Young-hee is polite and soft-spoken but given to eruptions of anger that blow over and pass as suddenly as they come. These outbursts are made all the more striking by their contrast with how Young-hee ordinarily comports herself. She is reserved, circumspect, thoughtful, brooding, not any of these exactly, but with some shading of each.

Over a dinner where there is much drinking Young-hee's friends ask about her and the director. Is she over the affair? Will she make another film? Her mention that she had affairs while in Europe prompts the IT guy to ask if it is true that European men are "bigger." Young-hee enthusiastically and maybe a little unkindly assures him that it is. And they are handsome too. Provoked only by an innocuous comment by the partner of her friend the café owner, she lashes out, telling them everyone is cowardly, satisfied with fake things, engaged in dirty acts, not qualified to love. Just as quickly the storm passes. Her friends are patient. They understand that she is going through a difficult time.

The next day the friends find a room for her at a hotel by the sea. As they talk while checking out the room a window washer stands outside on the balcony furiously scrubbing away at the sliding glass doors. She falls asleep on the beach and is awakened by the director's assistant who has come to the town with other members of the crew to scout for a location for the director's next film. Later they all have dinner together, the four members of the crew, the director himself, an older man, and a younger woman who may be involved with him. The director talks about the anguish the affair caused him and his regret. Young-hee unleashes another brief, angry outburst. The director presents her with a book as a gift.

She awakens on the beach and walks away from the camera. Lopate says the dinner scene with the director and his crew is a dream. I did not pick up on that even while watching the film a second time. Once it is pointed out, I get that it could be. A third viewing clearly is in order, and sooner rather than later while these things are fresh in my mind.

Hong Sang-soo's films do not come neatly wrapped up at the end. His characters are sometimes unlikable. Their behavior can be erratic, their conduct less than admirable. Yet there is a genuine humanity here, something of how life is. Perhaps I am so taken with Hong's tales about transient affairs of the heart and their melancholy, brooding aftermath because I made a hash of my own few affairs over the course of a lifetime. When asked by Manhee why she takes pictures, Claire says, "Because the only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly." Maybe looking at everything again very slowly is some of what Hong Sang-soo is up to.


Even in this period of cultural decadence and decline there are astounding filmmakers among us. Hong Sang-soo is one.

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David Matthews

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