Hong Sang-soo Notarized: On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate

English Title: On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate
Korean Title: 생활의 발견/Saenghwalui balgyeon/Discovery of Life
Premiere Date: March 22, 2002
U.S. Release Year: N/A
Festival: New York
Film Number: 4
First Viewing Number: 5
First Viewing Date: March 3, 2017
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 15
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 4
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 5
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 16
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 115 minutes (6th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: 35mm
Structure: Seven linear chapters, slight repetition
Recurring Actors: Kim Sang-kyung (first appearance), Ye Ji-won (first appearance)
Season: Summer (August)
Weather: Rain, sunny
Alcohol: Soju, OB lager beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Water, coffee, Pocari Sweat
Food: Chicken gruel, Korean barbecue, mak-guksu(?), sundubu-jigae
Drinking Scenes: 5
Creative People: Actor, dancer, writer, director
Academia: Professor
Vacation: Yes
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 1
Family: N/A
Vehicle Scenes: 6
Crying Scenes: 1
Number of Shots: 108
Number of Zooms: 0
Music Style: Spiegel im Spiegel (Arvo Pärt)
Title Background: Green background
Voiceover: N/A

This was the first early Hong I saw — I’ll be running into the odd paradox of that classification throughout this, but let’s place the dividing line between 2013 and 2014 for now — in large part because I got the sense that it was the consensus favorite of the period, and in some ways his international breakthrough, being his first film to screen in the NYFF Main Slate. I’m not so sure about that now — partly because of the vagueness of the period, partly because I feel like early Hong has been somewhat overlooked by many who’ve come to him in recent years, so interest only spikes for a new restoration or Blu-ray — but On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate stuck in my mind as one of the standouts, and it’s only grown for me on this rewatch, in part because it seems to mark a shift away from the harshness of his first three films (though as memory serves it comes back in the next film).

Instead, it bears a closer resemblance to the standard image of Hong, at least pre Kim Min-hee: a man involved in filmmaking goes on a vacation, where he becomes involved with various women, who are doubled in some way. Here, that doubling is, unusually, tied to a legend that is construed as the structuring metaphor for the film instead of, as in later films, an incidental illustration. But I had also remembered the two halves — I remembered twelve chapters, but weirdly Hong seems to have been obsessed with seven-part films at this time — as being direct mirrors or similar trajectories. Instead, the second half functions more as an inversion of the first, with Kyung-soo as the pursuing party where he was pursued in the first. The chapter titles themselves are notable, describing events rather than the chapter as a whole, thereby inserting an element of gamesmanship to allow the viewer to discover what lies around what’s implied to be the “key” event: knowing that Myung-suk loves Kyung-soo shades all their interactions leading up to that point, to say nothing of her then unknown identity.

Once again, there’s a difference between the Korean title, roughly translating to Discovery of Life, and the English title, which is typically equally called On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate and just Turning Gate. I prefer the longer title, partly because of its distinction and partly because it maps on closely to the last part’s chapter title, focusing on a single moment that might very well refer to the idea set forth in the Korean title.

Hong’s screenplay in particular feels much closer to his traditional style: characters speak both more naturally and in a way that calls back to almost koan phrases — “Even though it’s difficult to be a human being, let’s not turn into monsters” is repeated at least twice, and only gets funnier in each ill-fitting context. In general, this is a much more languid film — notably, it’s the first Hong of many where there are less shots than there are minutes in the film — and that very quality is what I’m so often drawn to in Hong. The raucous strip rock-paper-scissors scene in the club is allowed to play out as comedy before shifting to a more uneasy emotional tenor; the wonderful reveal of Kyung-soo and Sun-young’s past acquaintance takes place in two extended parts, with a break outside. The sex still remains though, and Kyung-soo asking if she “likes his moves” is as mortifying as ever. In general, however, there’s an ease to the interactions, and unlike the past films there is no prescribed endpoint; Kyung-soo is allowed to drift from one person to the other, and the vacation, which only really takes a few days, floats far past the prescriptions implied by a strict structure. Even the interactions between Kyung-soo and Sung-woo feel looser than those of The Power of Kangwon Province, and this is funnier than the past three films combined; the sight gag of Sun-young’s family emerging is astonishing.

I’ve never truly speculated about Hong’s politics, but I do have to wonder what his inclusion of Scott Nearing’s autobiography The Making of a Radical might imply; it’s talked about fairly frequently, if maybe more as a prop to pass between people. It’s also very funny to rediscover that “Spiegel im Spiegel” is in this, relatively early into its omnipresence in international film for the decade.

The staging of the last sequence with Kyung-soo and Sun-young is just a marvel, with the contrasting brick wall behind them acting as a separation as surely as the broken desire between them. Of all things, it reminded me of Out 1; I haven’t talked about Jacques Rivette yet, but just as surely as Éric Rohmer he’ll be a key reference point in the films to come.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

English Title: Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors
Korean Title: 오! 수정/O! Su-jeong/Oh! Soo-jung
Premiere Date: April 28, 2000
U.S. Release Year: 2021
Festival: Cannes (Un Certain Regard)
Film Number: 3
First Viewing Number: 12
First Viewing Date: June 13, 2018
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 25
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 3
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 14
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 23
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 126 minutes (3rd longest)
Color/Black & White: Black & White
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: 35mm
Structure: Two parts with an introduction and seven chapters each with different protagonists plus an epilogue
Recurring Actors: Moon Sung-keun (first appearance)
Season: Winter
Weather: Cold, sunny, snowy
Alcohol: Makgeolli, OB lager beer, cheongju, Chivas Regal Scotch whisky, soju, wine
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Juice, coffee
Food: Crayfish, jjamppong (also baked sweet potatoes, unidentified soup and party food)
Drinking Scenes: 10
Creative People: Filmmakers (director/producer, writer/editor), pianist, ex-painters
Academia: N/A
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 1
Family: Sister-brother
Vehicle Scenes: 4
Crying Scenes: 0
Number of Shots: 135
Number of Zooms: 0
Music Style: Plunky piano
Title Background: Black background
Voiceover: N/A

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is almost without question the first Hong (chronologically speaking) that most acolytes love, and especially on this rewatch for me it certainly resonates in the same way. Numerous hallmarks make their first appearance here: it is his first film in black-and-white (and only one this decade), his first about filmmakers — even if they appear to be more industrial, hoping to create their own films one day — and, most crucially, his first to use the kind of puzzle-box structure that overwhelmingly defined his films until recently. While The Power of Kangwon Province did have its overlapping structure, it’s used here to question, or rather rupture the reality set forth in the first half of the film.

The repetition of events, misleadingly helpfully labeled by numbered chapters — Jae-hoon’s chapter 4 is missing from Soo-jung’s, who has an added-on chapter 7 — invokes the difference in telling and/or perspective immediately, with Young-soo bolting from the table to go to the restroom instead of Jae-hoon. Additionally, the conversation about Jae-hoon formerly being able to drink 5 bottles of soju and 3 bottles of whiskey is shifted forward two chapters to fill the gap. What’s more ambiguous, in a productive sense, is the import: in general, the innocence or guilelessness of each perspective character is emphasized, as is the central unknowability of their counterpart. This makes the coda all the more strange: the finally-consummated sex is as raw and painful as hinted at before, but the bridge is slowly gulfed during both the sex and the eventual understanding with the bedsheets; the final shot is a sort of uneasy bliss, which jettisons potential other complications like Young-soo in favor of promises to do better. Because this is a Hong film, it’s definitely up in the air whether those promises will or can be met, and Soo-jung’s face is appropriately ambiguous, half doubtful and half reverie.

This is also the first Hong film where the English title, which appears to reference Duchamp, differs from the Korean title, the much less bleak Oh! Soo-jung. Besides reminding me of Powell-Pressburger’s Oh… Rosalinda!! (which I haven’t seen), it gets a pay-off with Jae-hoon’s utterance of the wrong name. But in its own way it carries a certain ambiguity: the oh! could be one of ecstasy and release or frustration and incomprehension, reactions which all occur throughout the film. It’s also one of the few named after a specific person, though there will be more later.

This film presents two distinctly contrasting actors in its main trio. Moon Sung-keun, one of Hong’s greatest stalwarts, makes his first appearance; even though he’s already almost 50, it’s disconcerting how he almost appears young compared to his later appearances; the wrinkles haven’t quite set in, and though he has a family it’s only invoked a few times. On the other hand, Lee Eun-ju, who won the Grand Bell for Best New Actress, died by suicide five years later at only 24, one of a few Hong actors who suffered an untimely death. She has something of a Kim Min-hee quality about her, especially in the second half, a certain radiance that was gone too soon. (Jeong Bo-seok is much better known as a television actor, and only sparingly appeared in films in the 2000s before leaving cinema altogether.)

According to the translations on my file, the chapter titles translate to, in order, “day of the waiting,” “or an accident,” “cable car suspension,” “a moment impulse,” and “primary.” I can’t pretend to be certain about what the second, fourth, and fifth chapters translate to, but in a certain sense the abstruseness is the point, given the wildly divergent events of certain chapters. And it’s appropriate that some of the dangling threads (especially Soo-jung’s apparently incestuous relationship with her brother and her claim not to wear a bra) are left unfulfilled, as suspended as that cable car, one of the funniest moments in Hong so far.

The black-and-white here really is gorgeous, and it’s something of a shame that this is the only one that he shot on film; I remember being totally entranced by the ice lake that Jae-hoon and Soo-jung sojurn onto, but the darkness is just as striking, especially in their makeout sessions in that outdoor park. And while I can’t say for certain yet whether winter is my favorite Hong season (though probably the most distinctive), the blanketed snow and glaring light works wonders here. There’s also three tracking shots here, contrary to my recollection; the first two are a shot-reverse-shot, and the third follows Jae-hoon as he first loses Soo-jung.

Though the filmmaking aspect is fairly deemphasized except for how it can bring Soo-jung and Young-soo together, and how it can be used to both put the latter on a pedestal and knock it down, there are some interesting bits of business, like the general sense of rancor among the crew, Kodak no longer developing 8mm, and the mention of reusing locations. Also, there are some glimpsed movie posters — A Man and a Woman, The Untouchables, Betty Blue — and music references: Beethoven’s 6th (Pastoral) and Stevie Wonder; Soo-jung is the first of several Hong musicians. Sport also forms something of a backbone, between the playing of ping-pong and badminton (in winter!).

While the sexually explicit scenes are rougher and more fraught than ever, the emotional dynamics have risen to that same level, and in some sense the elision of certain scenes like Jae-hoon’s alleyway attempt function almost on a psychological level, parceling out the uncomfortable moments and/or displacing them onto one man or the other. In the end, though Young-soo disappears for the last 15 minutes, he functions as a valuable fulcrum, along which the film’s emotional and narrative shifts sway to and fro.

This is the first of presumably a number of Hongs that has markedly improved on this watch for the viewing project, and so much of it lies in the deftness of the structure, which only gets more mysterious the further it goes along (though I did love the second half of Kangwon more than I remembered). This, even more than his interactions, probably elevates his films the most, at least in his early period; I’ll be sure to track this possible trend going forward.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: The Power of Kangwon Province

English Title: The Power of Kangwon Province
Korean Title: 강원도의 힘/Gangwon-do ui him
Premiere Date: April 4, 1998
U.S. Release Year: 2021
Festival: Cannes (Un Certain Regard)
Film Number: 2
First Viewing Number: 19
First Viewing Date: January 2, 2019
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 24
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 2
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 19
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 26
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 110 minutes (9th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: 35mm
Structure: Two uneven, linear, overlapping parts with different protagonists
Recurring Actors: Baek Jong-hak (first appearance)
Season: Summer
Weather: Sunny, sunshower
Alcohol: Hite beer, soju, bokbunja, baekseju, Johnnie Walker Blue Label
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, Coca-Cola, orange juice, limeade(?), iced tea, water, smoothie, Pocari Sweat
Food: Bimbimbap, sea squirt, fish, fruit, dried squid, pancakes, red bean dessert
Drinking Scenes: 9
Creative People: N/A
Academia: Professors and students, unspecified subject
Vacation: 2
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 4
Family: Husband-wife
Vehicle Scenes: 9
Crying Scenes: 1
Number of Shots: 190
Number of Zooms: 0
Music Style: Strummed electric guitar, also elegant string quartet
Title Background: Black background
Voiceover: N/A

This was maybe the Hong I had the least memory of before this most recent rewatch, sandwiched as it is between his debut and arguably the first film that fully deploys his rapidly developing trademarks. But The Power of Kangwon Province really does feel in a way like his second debut film; not only is it the first film that he wrote the screenplay for solo, but it also exclusively features the static shots that defined his films for a number of years, along with a more in-depth approach to character than the four-part The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well arguably allowed for.

The first drinking scene arguably epitomizes all of these: the scene begins in media res, with Ji-sook berating Mi-sun for perceived personal slights instead of merely being a lousy drunk. The conversation flows at Hong’s more deliberate pace, and in general he seems to spend more times on these meals or drinks, in contrast to the flurry of restaurants in the previous film. He still cuts in and out on the shots though, including effectively a shot-reverse-shot as Eun-kyoung leaves the table. The scene of Ji-sook totally drunk as the cop is dragging her off the sidewalk is very fun though, and it’s worth noting that they appear to be drinking bokbunja raspberry wine, which I don’t remember seeing in a Hong before and which has apparently been scientifically proven to improve male sexual stamina.

Baek Jong-hak is apparently the only actor who appears again in a Hong film (I think as one of the sycophants in The Day He Arrives) but I was unexpectedly really transfixed by Oh Yun-hong as Ji-sook; maybe it’s because she’s the first of the protagonists to appear and the women in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, by appearing third and fourth, felt somewhat subordinated and constrained by their limited appearance. There’s something about the particular triangular friendship dynamic on vacation that feels strong, especially that early scene of them singing “My Darling Clementine” on the beach together, and which allows the frustrated relationship and fraught return to Kangwon to take on an additional resonance. It has a certain compactness, running about 40 minutes, that Sang-kwon’s much longer section can’t really have; that contrast almost embodies the difference between late and early Hong, respectively.

In general there’s a strange preoccupation with fish here, an overarching metaphor that imbues them with an overtly symbolic quality not often found in Hong’s structures. The two fish that become(?) one, the consistent consumption of fish, sea squirts, and dried squid; not exactly sure what it means, along with both Sang-kwon and Ji-sook nearly getting hit by cars pulling out of parking spaces.

The overlapping structure really is done well; Jae-wan’s order in the train car is lingered on long enough that I instinctively sensed that it must have a significance, but it doesn’t wrap around until 20 minutes into Sang-kwon’s section. There’s a certain slackness wrapped up once again in questions of employment (it’s never exactly specified what Sang-kwon teaches, intriguingly), but the vacation and its possibilities helps a lot of his interactions.

Some interesting bits of Western culture floating through this: a barely glimpsed The People vs. Larry Flynt poster, an Optimus Prime action figure, the Russian club workers, Ji-sook’s M&M shirt, the Dallas Cowboys shirt that Jae-wan wears, the use of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” There’s also a scene where Sang-kwon has something stuck in his eye, decades before Hong’s recent eye problems, and a cutaway during the first drinking scene to a lamprey a la Drive My Car.

Hong’s morbid invocation of death continues here: death by falling is invoked three separate times, including the genuine possibility that the cop might jump after being rejected by Ji-sook. The inclusion of the woman pursued by Sang-kwong and Jae-wan, aside from serving as another point of connection between the two vacations like the sea squirt restaurant (that Hong took much further in Hahaha) does feel a little thinly conceived, though the last conversation they have is good.

The shots on top of the mountain are honestly kind of stunning, including their incorporation of the actors and the distance, it makes me wonder if Hong might have considered a more self-consciously picturesque approach at one point (not to say that he doesn’t use his landscapes later on well). It’s also worth noting that Kim Young-chul won Best Newcomer in Cinematography at the Grand Bell Awards (South Korea’s Oscar equivalent).

The resolution, involving Ji-sook returning to Sang-kwon presumably after her failed connection with the cop, exists once again in a more ambiguous place. I’m inclined to think it’s real, because it’s lingered on more than usual for Hong’s dreams, though in general it has a nice mysterious quality, invoking a past history we aren’t privy to, having arrived upon them after their relationship already ended.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well

English Title: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well
Korean Title: 돼지가 우물에 빠진 날/Dwaejiga umul-e ppajin nal
Premiere Date: May 15, 1996
U.S. Release Year: N/A
Festival: VIFF (Dragons and Tigers Award), Rotterdam 1997 (Tiger Award)
Film Number: 1
First Viewing Number: 19
First Viewing Date: April 17, 2019
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 26
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 1
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 22
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 28
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 116 minutes (8th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: 35mm
Structure: Four linear parts with four successive protagonists
Recurring Actors: Kim Eui-sung (first appearance)
Season: Autumn (October-November)
Weather: Sunny and brisk
Alcohol: Soju, beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, tea, sprite, Coca-Cola
Food: Korean barbecue, fruit, tofu soup, pastry, ramen, noodle soup, dumplings, Wendy’s, cake, Häagen-Dazs bar
Drinking Scenes: 1
Creative People: Novelists, audio dubbers
Academia: N/A
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: 2
Film Screening: Yes (movie theater off-screen)
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 3
Family: Husband-wife
Vehicle Scenes: 3
Crying Scenes: 1
Number of Shots: ~258
Number of Zooms: 0
Music Style: Ominous string quartet
Title Background: Black background
Voiceover: N/A

It’s always bracing to return to early Hong, considering the relative misanthropy unleavened by the humor that surrounds them. The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, as his debut, especially falls into this pattern, but I forgot how relentless the unpleasant interactions are here, which compound in such a way that it almost gestures at the surreal structures that would take root soon in his work: a client who keeps appearing to be out-of-town, a sex worker who shows up immediately after a glimpsed moment of lovers quarreling, a pestering movie theater owner. Korean Movie Database also says that this was originally a novel by Koo Hyo-seo, and that four other writers in addition to Hong worked on its adaptation.

The first shot is a restive shot of small fruit that Hyo-seop, the only typically Hongian main character in the film as a bumbling novelist — fittingly played by Kim Eui-sung, the only Hong regular but who nevertheless doesn’t recur until much later — steals from his neighbor’s rooftop garden. There’s another potted plant outside a coffee shop later on, but unlike On the Beach at Night Alone or Grass there’s a different subject: an insect scurrying around that Hyo-seop is poking at.

Sex is common in Hong’s early films, but the frequency here is surprising, though it dovetails at least somewhat with the need for each of the four protagonists to find intimacy; the one that really sticks out is the atypical use of sex as punctuation, where a friend of the second protagonist (Park Jin-sung) ostensibly refuses to take him back to the office he’s visiting because he’s waiting on an important fax, only to have very loud and explicit sex with his wife; the last time both characters are seen. The Korean hentai(?) is also a nastier touch than usual.

The four-part structure is more pointedly deployed than I remembered, charting each part of this love rectangle; I had assumed that it was just a network narrative of people meeting by chance, and thus the return of various characters, especially Park’s and Lee Eung-kyeong’s, was rather deftly deployed. It also allows for there to be a ton of food scenes, though the only one that feels lingered on in the traditional Hong way is the Korean barbecue scene, which is presumably the only time Hong will film actual fighting, as fittingly sloppy as it is (with wild handheld to boot). And I’ll never not be amused by seeing baby-faced Song Kang-ho as the cool friend; love the unexpected inclusions of Western culture via Wendy’s, The Simpsons, the Beatles’ “Old Brown Shoe,” and The Shawshank Redemption.

As far as I can remember, this is the only Hong film that has tracking shots, seven in total, though none of them are extravagant and they’re mostly used as little push-ins, which nearly presage the zoom shots. There’s also two dissolves, both deployed on bus-rides, which only crop up again much later. Some moments of shot-reverse-shot, but it never really feels like true continuity shooting; characters are allowed to speak their full lines before cutting, and while there are probably more shots in this than in the last five Hongs combined, a fair amount are inserts on objects or establishing shots.

For all the gloominess here, there’s a certain warmth to little interactions that brings it a little closer to later Hong: the man who Kim gives money to in jail (weird to see Hong film a courtroom), the apple-eating and odd barricade-hopping that Kim’s former friends do immediately after leaving for drinking, the general relationship between Cho and her coworker.

I forgot that this remained a little bit more ambiguous concerning whether Kim and Cho Eun-sook were actually killed in the ending (though presumably Lee is actually talking with Kim on the phone in the end, rendering it a dream sequence), and in general the apparent Taiwanese New Wave influence of Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang is even stronger than I remembered; the last scene is a virtual mirror of The River, with some calm laying-out of newspapers for extra measure.

March 2022 Capsules

Spirited Away [rewatch]
It’s a piercing testament to Miyazaki’s genius here that, for all the earned sentimentalism that flows throughout this, the film ends with Chihiro’s perspective of the tunnel receding into the distance. No view of her newfound friends, or her potential life partner, or even the mysterious gods is possible in the ultimate dichotomy between these worlds. As much as she was able to bring a great vitality to the bath house, there are forces greater than magic or love ruling over these realms, and so she must return to the living, and the sensations of the other side must remain a memory, just like the river that saved and nurtured her so long ago. It’s too far in both time and space, and that’s the way it must be.

Pom Poko
The interlude with the foxes, already comfortably assimilated into modern Japanese society, helps clarify and differentiate the plight and journey of the raccoons. It’s said early in the film that their nature doesn’t allow them to have the same focus as the foxes, too prone to sloth to be as convincingly for as long. While that may be true, that’s also exactly what allows them to produce such grand and beautiful feats: their community, their ability to feed off of each other’s energy to bolster each other. In their final decision to join Tokyo, it is still with that same compassion, a splitting up to keep as many alive as possible, an invisible community of bodies built up with each celebration, each humorous yet poignant transformation.