Where to begin with Hong Sang-soo

As In Front of Your Face arrives in UK cinemas, we plot a beginner’s path through Hong Sang-soo’s soju-soaked cinema of human foibles.

20 September 2022

By John Berra

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)

Why this might not seem so easy

“Write what you know” is as much of a cliché as it is a maxim, but the quotidian cinema of Hong Sang-soo proves that the apparently mundane can be fertile territory. Through mining obsessions (love, jealousy, the male ego), activities (walking, talking, watching movies) and pleasures (eating, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes), his oeuvre blends incisive observation with subtle surrealism.

Often compared to French iconoclasts Eric Rohmer and Alain Resnais, Hong’s commitment to illustrating human foibles via deceptively slight, seriocomic narratives has made him the most elusively low-key director in contemporary South Korean cinema. Although his chatty films can be mistaken for self-indulgent sketches, there is much more to Hong than meets the casual eye or ear.

To concisely break down Hong’s prodigious career, his early features range from the bleak social critique of The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996) to the formal experimentation of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000). He then gravitated to the fringes of South Korea’s mainstream film industry, realising his first masterpiece with Tale of Cinema (2005). Craving greater flexibility, he switched to micro-budget independent production with Like You Know It All (2009), and it is within this ongoing period that Hong’s fixation with male insecurity has evolved into a curiosity about the quandaries of the opposite sex. Signalled by the shift to a female narrator within Oki’s Movie (2010), this development has resulted in such nuanced explorations of female malaise as Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013) and The Woman Who Ran (2020).

The protagonists of Hong’s world inhabit a postmodern South Korea which may appear rather flat to those who associate its cinema with the virtuosic stylistics of Bong Joon Ho or Park Chan-wook. Instead, Hong favours lengthy master shots with conversations occurring in everyday spaces – the 87 minutes of Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) comprise just 51 shots. Yet this ordinariness is offset by Hong’s idiosyncratic approach to repetition and temporality, which question subjective reality in mannerist fashion. 

In Front of Your Face (2021)

There is also a meta element, since Hong’s protagonists are usually involved in the arts and often have names that sound like his. One could assume that Hong is pandering to a rarefied audience, but the preponderance of male artistic types serves his take on the key difference between genders: men are prone to fretting about their status, while the women they covet are happy to go with the flow.

Hong is a restless, prolific talent. Indeed, this month sees the UK theatrical release of his 26th feature, In Front of Your Face (2021), while he has since completed The Novelist’s Film (2022) and Walk Up (2022). Yet to merely play catch up would be to overlook the interconnectedness of Hong’s work: his penchant for self-reflexivity means that each film informs others. That said, pairings or groupings are not necessarily obvious or exclusive in Hong’s universe of infinite possibilities.

The best place to start – Right Now, Wrong Then

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) is a bifurcated study of male-female dynamics. Arthouse filmmaker Ham Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong) arrives in the town of Suwon one day early for a screening and meets model-turned-painter Yoon Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee) at a temple. They visit her studio, eat sushi and attend an evening social gathering where things go awry. Then the day starts over, gifting Ham a second chance.

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)

Hong initially employed this twice-told structure in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, wherein a love triangle plays out twice with some changes, only for patriarchal norms to entail the same frustrating conclusion. However, the second half of Right Now, Wrong Then is comparatively optimistic, since verbal and physical variations contribute to a positive outcome. This structure also emphasises the abundant choices in the filmmaking process. Hong has taken to using outlines rather than full screenplays and encourages his actors to improvise. In this case, the first half was completed and shown to the cast, who then explored different facets of their characters when shooting the second half.

Their adjustments are captured through Hong’s extended takes, which allow conversation to drift from silence-averting banalities to philosophical exchanges as the protagonists get more inebriated (his actors often consume alcohol while shooting and his films provide a handy guide to Korean drinking culture). 

There are also 32 zooms, a technique that Hong famously deploys to underscore ideas; his zooms effectively function like edits but don’t interfere with the natural equilibrium of the scene.

What to watch next

Try some pairings. Tale of Cinema is a sublime reflection on the cross-pollination of art and life. Its first half concerns the suicide pact between former classmates (Lee Ki-woo and Uhm Ji-won); in the second, this is revealed to be a film-within-a-film that’s being watched by a struggling filmmaker (Kim Sang-kyung) who tries to woo the lead actress when he spots her on the street. Pair with the freewheeling French New Wave homage of Night and Day (2008), which saw Hong transition from film to digital video. It’s a comedy of cultural displacement following the misadventures of a Korean artist (Kim Yeong-ho) in Paris.

Tale of Cinema (2005)

Get caught in a time loop with The Day He Arrives (2011), which has a lapsed filmmaker (Yu Jun-sang) unwittingly repeating the same day, during which he romances a bar proprietress who resembles his ex-girlfriend (both are played by Kim Bo-kyung). Shot in stark black and white and peppered with literary motifs (the bar is called Novel), it’s a rueful meditation on being burdened by the past. Female doppelgängers also appear in Yourself and Yours (2016), which has a painter (Kim Joo-hyuk) losing his girlfriend (Lee Yoo-young) due to an argument about her alcohol consumption. An uncanny Buñuelian mystery ensues when different ‘versions’ of her are seen around the neighbourhood in the company of other men.

The Power of Kangwon Province (1998)

Next, get out of the city. The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) chronicles two simultaneous trips to the titular tourist destination. One is taken by a young woman (Oh Yun-hong) trying to get over an affair; the other traveller is the married lecturer (Baek Jong-hak) she had been seeing. HaHaHa (2010) finds a filmmaker (Kim Sang-kyung) and a writer (Yoo Jun-sang) recounting their respective trips to the same seaside town, not realising that their jaunts in fact overlapped. The earlier film blithely eschews the notion that travel heals the soul, while its loose companion piece demonstrates Hong’s increasing structural complexity by making two stories play like one.

Travel also features in On the Beach at Night Alone (2017), a profoundly melancholic reverie which is pivoted on a beguiling performance from Hong’s regular collaborator Kim Min-hee as a scandal-plagued actress reclaiming her identity from judgmental public perception. Pair with Our Sunhi (2013), a wry critique of the male gaze wherein a recent film school graduate (the charming Jung Yu-mi) is romantically pursued by three hapless suitors from her alma mater, none of whom have the faintest idea about what she really needs.

On the Beach at Night Alone (2017)

Where not to start

Hong’s debut feature, The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996), has proved to be something of an outlier since it’s his only use of the network narrative to date, with four interlocking stories forming a troubling portrait of urban alienation. Despite establishing certain Hongisms, it’s a coolly distanced exercise wherein male insecurity erupts into graphic physical violence and only a slither of deadpan humour undercuts the pervading sense of hopelessness. As such, it’s best viewed in the context of the emergence of New Korean Cinema rather than as a Hong entry point.

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