Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hong Sang-soo Spotlight

When I started digging for Korean films 6-7 years ago, the name of Hong Sang-soo came up quite often. Unfortunately, I could not find a single one of his films available on DVD. As each subsequent year went by, I read about another Hong Sang-soo film showing at a far away film festival but none of those titles ever landed in any local cinema. Finally in 2008, an opening emerged when Videomatica in Vancouver carried his Woman is the Future of Man and I was able to end my Hong Sang-soo drought.
I expected the flood gates to open and an a gush of his films to appear but it was not to be. Then remarkably in 2010, I was lucky enough to see a hat-trick of his films starting with Like You Know It All, HaHaHa and finishing off with Oki’s Movie seen on the final day of TIFF 2010.
Now after seeing Hong Sang-soo’s Paris based Night and Day recently, I have managed to see five out of his 12 features to date. So some comments and notes on his features are long overdue.

Eat, Drink, Talk, Man, Woman

All the five features have some form of a gathering where men and women sit down at a table, share a meal and drink plenty of drinks, be it soju or beer. The conversations flow effortlessly among all gathered although the alcohol serves as a lubrication to assist in those fluid words. The alcohol also eases the feelings of those people to pour their heart out or to reveal too much about their hidden feelings thereby putting themselves in an awkward position. These five features show that no matter what hidden thought or feeling a character has, it will be placed out in the open for all to reflect on. In fact, a character could have committed a questionable act years ago and forgotten about it but it will always come back to haunt them. There is no place for the characters to hide and they have to walk with their shame painted invisibly on their faces after their alcoholic infused confession. Night and Day manages to escape from the structure of these life changing social gatherings because the only damage that comes from such a food/drink gathering in the film is regarding a reference towards North Korea and does not get the main character into too much trouble. However, in the other four films the social gatherings have to do with either a woman, issues of the heart or a person’s artistic accomplishments. Such topics are emotionally charged so naturally when characters have their tongues loosened, it leads to a far more damaging effect.

Structure & Framework

Hong Sang-soo’s recent features may give the appearance of familiarity because of elements of love, relationship, drinks, memory and conversations. In the last few features he has used the same technique of abrupt zooms and divided the films into different chapters or four short films as in the case of Oki’s Movie. Flashbacks are also a critical part of these movies as the story cuts from the present to the past as characters reminisce about their past loves and hopes while feeling a bit down in the present. However, despite all these familiar elements, each film is still crafted in a unique mould with each character and story standing on its own.

In a sense, the five features do not cover a wide array of brew styles ranging from a lager to a stout but merely alter the hop count found in an IPA. Depending on how hoppy an IPA is, one can either experience a fragrant aroma and taste or have a bitter hoppy experience. So Hong Sang-soo is barely tweaking the recipe of his own created IPA and coming up with new subtle flavours. Some creations are a bit more bitter than others while some contain a sweet aftertaste. On top of that, the honesty of the characters and the awkward situations they find themselves in does not feel like scripted cinema but instead seems like something born from a personal experience. Yet, it could all be down to Hong Sang-soo’s ability that he is able to craft films which ooze with real and breathing characters who exhibit none of the conventional stereotypical templates others movies impose on characters. His films manage to weave wit, humor and sarcasm seamlessly while providing enough for viewers to put together their own version of the character’s lives.

Other essential reading

David Bordwell has an amazing piece regarding the structure and narrative style of Oki’s Movie and HaHaHa.

Marc Raymond has some great reviews about Oki’s Movie and HaHaHa.

Quintin’s remarkable piece on Like You Know It All does indicate an autobiographical element to that film.


Sam Juliano said...

I'm sure Bordwell's piece is superlative Sachin. Oddly enough I can't say I bear any familiarity with this director, though the round-up you present here makes him somewhat essential. The connection threads of people sitting down to eat, brings recollection all the way back to Ozu and more recently to Itami and to Lee, who you homage with the initial catch words. Thanks for the splendid reviews and singular passion.

Sachin said...

Sam, I am glad you mentioned Ozu because I was thinking quite a bit about him with regards to the alcohol drinking sessions in Hong Sang-soo's films. I try to keep an eye out to see what characters in films by a specific director drink. The problem is most films often do not make the bottles entirely visible or in some Asian film case, there is no English title recognizable.

Thanks again for your nice comment :)

PS: I am sure you will come across a film by Hong Sang-soo sooner rather than later as the Lincoln Center has shown a few of his films previously as has the NYFF. But I can't see his new film at this year's NYFF.

Sachin said...

And Sam I really wanted to avoid the direct reference to Ang Lee but his film's title was so appropriate so I added a "talk" in the heading as a means of difference :)