Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Hong-Sang Soo’s filmmaker fetish

As is any self-respecting art form in the modern and post-modern era, film is often a self-reflexive medium. Whether it be in canonized classics like “Man with a Movie Camera” and “8 ½”, arthouse fare like “Pastoral: To Die in the Country” and “Ulysses Gaze”, or popular recent Oscar-winners like “The Artist” and “Argo”, filmmakers can’t seem to get enough of making stories that somehow revolve around the medium and industry of film.

Specifically in films about filmmakers, there are often characters who are surrogates from the filmmaker making the movie (post-modern as fuck!), as in the case of Guido Anselmi in “8 ½” or Sandy Bates in Woody Allen’s riff “Stardust Memories”, or more literally, Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Of course, directors and writers constantly draw on their own experiences when making films, so it could be said that every character in a film has a little bit of its creator in them, and it also makes sense that at some point those creators make a film that deals directly with their profession. But perhaps no director has made more films that are so directly concerned with film and filmmakers than Hong Sang-Soo.

Hong Sang-soo is a key player in the recent Korean new wave of the late 1990s and early 2000s, along with big players like Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, Kim Ki-Duk, Lee Chang-dong, and Bong Joon-ho. These filmmakers have made some of the best films of the 1990s and 2000s, and binging on their films was a turning point in my own level of interest in film as an art form. Being a teenager at the time, the films that intrigued me most were the dark, gritty, and often gruesome thrillers, which these directors do better than anyone else.

It wasn’t until this year that I saw my first film by Hong Sang-soo, and his work has much more in common with the talky, low-key relationship studies of Eric Rohmer than the crime thrillers of his contemporaries. Hong Sang-soo has a very particular style of filmmaking, that can be distilled into a few basic elements. All of them (at least from what I’ve seen, which is six of his films) are realistic relationship dramas, often with comedic elements, elliptical narratives, repetition of dialogue and situations, lots of recreational soju drinking, ex-lovers meeting up after long time apart and characters who are filmmakers, film professors or both. The more films I watch by him, the more threads I notice between them, and the more I feel like he is essentially making the same movie over and over again. But it’s a great movie, and his subtle tweaks to the formula make all the difference.

Possibly the most noticeable recurring element in his films is the motif of the filmmaker character. In literally every single one of his movies that I’ve seen, there is at least one (but often more) character(s) who is a director or film professor. It has become a sort of game to see when a character will announce in the movie that they are a director, and it almost seems to take on the air of a running joke, but that could be my projection. This trend is presented pretty strikingly in 2005’s “A Tale of Cinema”, a metafilm that deals with the disconnect between reality and film. The first half of the film is the story of a student tentatively rekindling a relationship with his ex-girlfriend. As this story ends, it turns out that it was a short film that was being watched by Tongsu, a filmmaker and former classmate of the director and star of the short film (Hong Sang-soo pulling a fast one by revealing that the character who we thought was a simple student was actually a writer and director. Classic.)

Things get more complicated when Tongsu meets the actress who plays the ex-girlfriend in the film, and proceeds to start a relationship through several scenes which eerily mirror the scenes of the short film he was obsessed with. The film is brilliant and has a lot to say about how we idealize people based on images we create of them and the role that film has to play in this dynamic, and it is just one of many examples of Hong Sang-soo using the medium of film as a window to explore broader themes by combining naturalistic acting and relationship dynamics with formalistic narrative structures.

But even in films like “The Day he Arrives” and “Our Sunhi”, films with no such narrative trickery, he still makes several of the characters directors and professors by trade. When asked in an interview about this, he flippantly answered, “I don’t think it’s that important, what kind of profession they have, is the biggest reason. I don’t know other people too much in other professions, so I just go for the profession I know.” Mystery solved.

Or is it? As much as his answer makes the trend seem like an afterthought, watching his films, especially those which deal directly with film as a medium like “A Tale of Cinema,” the recurrence of filmmaker characters creates a unique aesthetic and ideological experience. Film, by capturing and cementing a certain depiction of reality, has the unique power to create a fictional world that exists parallel to our own everyday reality. What I felt that “A Tale of Cinema” was getting at was that the world of film is almost always an idealized version of our own reality, and the real thing is always messier and more complicated than the neatness afforded by the medium of film. Hong Sang-soo’s movies are almost always a rejection of this idealization, and they are populated by characters who make mistakes, sleep with the wrong people, drink way much alcohol at strange times and have awkward encounters with friends and exes. In other words, real people.

Or at least closer to real people than most films get. The contrast of the realness of the characters and the idealizing, or “fantasizing”, aspect of many of these characters’ professions, seems to emphasize the disconnect in a really clever and thoughtful way. The way that Hong Sang-soo fills his movies with moments of embarrassment, bad behavior, and awkward relationships, and manages to find humor and pathos among all of these relatable situations, makes him one of the most exciting directors I’ve ever seen, despite his movies being essentially the same thing over and over again. The low-key, off-kilter worlds he creates are endlessly appealing and singular. His films use artifice to self-consciously dismantle the artifice of film, and do so in a highly pleasing and entertaining way. Of all the films made about film, Hong Sang-soo’s may be the best.

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