Reviews

Bam gua nat

Hong Sang-soo

South Korea, 2008

Credits

Review by Cullen Gallagher

Posted on 27 October 2008

Source Fortissimo Films 35mm Print

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External links

“Boyfriends and Girlfriends: Hong Sang-soo on Woman on the Beach.” by Kevin B. Lee, CinemaScope no. 29.

Categories The 46th New York Film Festival

While other South Korean auteurs have catapulted into the international spotlight in recent years (particularly Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook), Hong Sang-soo has been biding his time, churning out film after film, and creating one of the most consistent – and consistently compelling – bodies of work in contemporary cinema. A staple of the New York Film Festival, where his last four films have played, Hong gets little other exposure in the United States. Sparse festival screenings and foreign-region DVDs have been slowly building strong support for the director, yet in America he has only received two small theatrical releases and one domestic DVD release (a second, for Hong’s previous film, Woman on the Beach, is slated for December 2008). Such lamenting, however, is a staple in any Hong criticism, and even though I’m a guilty perpetuator, I’m getting tired of reading about his near-breakthrough. I’m ready for the underdog to have his day of glory; for Hong Sang-soo to make the leap from festival darling to a revered auteur among the ranks of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang.

Hong’s latest film, Night and Day, extends his career-long preoccupation with the confused male psyche—though, at this point we could almost say that Hong’s films are exercises in ritual emasculation: social experiments in which his male protagonists are given center stage to exercise their libido, only to expose (or, in some cases, to reaffirm) their impotency and inadequacy. At the start of Night and Day, several successive intertitles set up the context for the story: Sung-nam, a forty-something Korean artist, smokes marijuana (for the first time) with an American exchange student, who is subsequently arrested and divulges the artist’s name. Fearing incarceration, the artist abandons his wife and flees to Paris, where the film begins.

Living in a cramped room with a dozen other Korean émigrés, Sung-nam spends his days in self-pitying ennui. He alternates between calling his wife and weeping longingly into the phone, and attempting to two-time her with various Korean women nearly half his age. Recalling Groucho Marx by way of Woody Allen, Sung-nam suffers from the “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member” syndrome: the women he chases don’t care to sleep with him, yet those that want to (including an old-flame he insulted by not recognizing her on the street) he passionately avoids. Like Eric Rohmer, Hong prefers stories that seem more like designs than traditional plot-driven narratives. Within these designs, the characters are able to enact circular moral dilemmas with successively increasing complexity, nuance, and ambiguity. No character comes off as wholly angelic or villainous—instead, Hong completely empathizes with their morally compromised/confused actions. Sung-nam may not be the ideal “man,” but his libido-driven fantasies and contradictory attachment to his wife are far from unbelievable (and, depending on the company you keep, perhaps even common).

A reoccurring criticism of Hong is that he doesn’t extend this same insightful consideration to his female characters. While earlier Hong films such as The Power of the Kangwon Province or The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors were more (or, at least equally) focused on their female protagonists, it is undeniable that Night and Day is male-centric. But rather than a weakness, I feel that this is one of the strengths of Hong’s work. In a post-feminist society, Hong is focusing on the lack of re-imagining that has happened with masculine identity. Not only do the two female protagonists of Kangwon show a great deal of independence, but in Woman on the Beach, once the two girlfriends learn of their mutual unfaithful partner, the two of them decide to meet and concur about their skeezy “boyfriend”—truly the man’s worst nightmare come true. But no such revelation is allowed for Hong’s male characters: while they often get their comeuppance, they never seem to mature, or even to learn from their situation. With their tail between their legs, they are merely glad they got out alive.

The latest in a long line of emasculated protagonists, Sung-nam is certainly the most negative manifestation of masculinity yet in Hong’s filmography. Sung-nam is spared no embarrassment or pity as he fumbles his way into unwanted relationships with women: his forcefulness is repellent, not to mention his unwavering thickheadedness. But most disgusting of all is how Sung-nam successfully pulls the wool over the eyes of not only his girlfriends, but also his wife. Acting like a child, Sung-nam somehow manages to have his cake and eat it to: he indulges in affairs with other women while convincing his wife of his fidelity. Whereas Woman on the Beach ended with the male protagonist retreating back into bachelor camaraderie, Night and Day ends with the reunion of man and wife: the institutions of marriage and home are upheld. Sung-nam is, on the surface, unscathed by his infidelities and moral transgressions. This semblance of closure is something new for Hong: while not a total resolution, Sung-nam at least returns to the state-of-being from before the story began.

While the film does align itself with several of Hong’s key issues, it is also somewhat of a departure for the filmmaker. Night and Day eschews much of the formal rigor of his previous films, particularly the split-narrative of that characterized Hong’s best work (The Power of the Kangwon Province and Tale of Cinema), in which each half of the film contained a separate, though related, narrative. Such an approach allowed for not only an inventive structure, but also playful connections could open up whole new worlds and possibilities. Night and Day is also much more insular than Hong’s previous works. While watching Woman on the Beach, there are moments in which non-central characters suddenly appear from off-screen, giving the impression that were Hong to just turn his camera ever so slightly, an entirely different narrative would be unfolding.

The most noticeable shift in Hong’s approach to Night and Day is in the narrative’s timeline. Whereas earlier Hong films unfolded in almost real time – linger on the uncomfortable, pregnant silences between characters – this new film of his takes on a diary-like structure akin to Eric Rohmer’s Summer (The Green Ray) or Claire’s Knee. Title cards displaying the day abruptly cut-off scenes and fragment the story almost to the point of ambiguity. The film doesn’t progress so much as accumulate: a bucket of uneventful days and meaningless chatter, but with Hong’s perceptive ear for dialogue and instinct for evocative yet ephemeral action, such minutiae becomes irresistibly engaging.

But this lack of orderly progression also reflects Sung-nam’s own directionless life. Unfaithful while away from his wife while all the time pining over her; alienated in Paris but fearful of arrest back in South Korea: Sung-nam doesn’t know where he should belong or who he should be with. And then there is the issue of his occupation: artist. Never once do we see him painting. The only times he even superficially interacts with art is when he stares flummoxed at a painting of a woman’s genital region and when he compliments a young woman’s portfolio in hopes of going to bed with her. In both instances, art is but a pit stop on an adolescent-like journey into the mysterious world of sex.

In an insightful interview with Kevin B. Lee published in CinemaScope around the time of Woman on the Beach’s release, Hong discussed the potential to which he is trying to make his work more accessible to audiences.

I started thinking about that after the last picture, Tale of Cinema. I had a desire as a filmmaker to keep digging deeper into myself, discovering new things about what my true realm really is. Of course, the other desire is to communicate with others. Maybe it’s my age, but a small voice was asking me when I was shooting, “Will they understand this?” I didn’t have that kind of voice before.

While Woman on the Beach was certainly Hong’s funniest film-to-date, one isn’t struck by any sort of artistic compromise on his part. The story naturally absorbs the split-narrative structure of his earlier films, altering it to fit the situations at hand, and even Hong’s mise-en-scene is playfully formal, intertwining static, long-takes with spontaneous zooms. For the most part, Night and Day exhibits the same compositional strategies as its predecessor, but there have certainly been subtle changes to the Hong universe: for the first time Hong has set one of his stories outside of Korea; furthermore, he has made his first move away from strict objectivity by using a dream sequence; and then there are the above mentioned variations in structure, temporality, and character. It has yet to be seen whether they mark a permanent shift for the director, or whether they were simply adjustments to the particular story Hong was dealing with. We will have to wait for Hong’s next film, You Don’t Even Know, to see what direction the auteur’s style – and career – will take.

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