Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Oki’s Movie

English Title: Oki’s Movie
Korean Title: 옥희의 영화/Ok-hi-eui Yeonghwa
Premiere Date: September 11, 2010
U.S. Release Year: 2012
Festival: Venice (Orizzonti)
Film Number: 11
First Viewing Number: 17
First Viewing Date: March 4, 2019
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 12
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 12
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 20
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 12
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 80 minutes (21th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Four unequal parts/separate short films with three protagonists
Recurring Actors: Lee Sun-kyun (third appearance), Jung Yu-mi (third appearance), Moon Sung-keun (third appearance), Seo Young-hwa (second appearance), Kim Jin-kyung (second appearance), Shin Sun (first appearance)
Season: Winter (Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day)
Weather: Sunny, snowy, rainy
Alcohol: Cheongju, makgeolli, Cass beer, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, baijiu
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Milk, coffee, Coca-Cola, tea
Food: Seafood pancake, janchi-guksu, octopus, red bean bun, sandwich, dried squid, Chinese shrimp and bok choy, bean sprouts
Drinking Scenes: 6
Creative People: Filmmakers
Academia: Film professors and students
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: Yes (twice off-screen)
Films Within Films: 1-4
Q&A: 2
Naps: 2
Family: N/A
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: N/A
Number of Shots: 90
Number of Zooms: 25 out, 35 in
Music Style: Pomp and Circumstance (Elgar)
Title Background: Blue slide projector/Yellow background for closing credits (black text)
Voiceover: 4

Something that I didn’t truly appreciate about Hong until this viewing project is how his films maintain a similar level of ambiguity while subtly changing their methods of conveying that, especially across the early, middle, and late periods. The early periods, while certainly operating according to a clear structure, largely eschewed a full disruption of its diegesis, instead constructing repetitions through little events while keeping a comparatively comprehensible sense of narrative. The middle period films, or at least these first two features, instead totally disrupt conventions by making narrative drive come through decisive junctures that nevertheless flow together; the mystery instead comes from conversation, from the puzzle-like nature of relating them to character. Oki’s Movie is the clearest example yet, something which almost threw me the first time even though I knew the four-part, almost anthology nature of the film going in. Its genius lies in how it accesses emotions and allegiances through withholding, never making the full design apparent but finding beauty in the pieces.

I had also totally forgotten how, at least for the majority of the film, Oki isn’t the main character, and indeed doesn’t even appear in the first part, A Day for Incantation. (I should note here that Wikipedia’s plot synopsis assumes that this is the only part that takes place in the present, with at least part of the film a flashback; I disagree.) Instead, Jin-gu is — aside from a few cutaways to Oki’s/Og-hui’s experiences during the second part, King of Kisses — the main character of the first two parts, which constitutes the first 55 minutes of this 80 minute film — the first Hong that can truly be said to be shorter than an ordinary feature — and are both considerably than the last two parts. The third part, After the Snowstorm, Song’s perspective, takes up just less than ten minutes, while the last part, Oki’s Movie — not the last time the actual title of a Hong film will appear onscreen late into the film — runs about fifteen minutes.

Without this foreknowledge, one might easily anticipate something edging closer to early Hong, albeit in a more overtly reflective context: Jin-gu’s insecurities about his position as a professor are reminiscent of The Power of Kangwon Province — there’s even another bottle of Blue Label, though this one is actually drunk onscreen — but there’s just as much emphasis placed on the nature of art itself and how it ties into forces both economic and personal: the odd relationship he has with his wife and the total mystery of Yeong-su, notably she repeats the admonishment to not make promises that he couldn’t keep from Like You Know It All; Song’s bitter statement that “film as an art is dead” worldwide and that “only books will save us” dovetails into Jin-gu’s insistence to his berated student — the use of voiceover for her script is oddly lovely, the only voice that’s not one of the main characters — that he’s trying to teach her how to survive; the outrage that Jin-gu experiences when Seo Young-hwa takes his picture almost suggests something of the old superstition that photography would take someone’s soul; and of course the Q&A scene. It at least initially begins with a genuinely (if alcohol-fueled) insightful preference to focus on pure reaction as a viewer of films, saying that the impulse to focus on themes is taught and puts all the interesting themes about films is something of a funnel; like the classroom scene in Like You Know It All, I have little doubt that Hong believes much of this.

The rest of the Q&A scene, however, is as mortifyingly hilarious as anything Hong’s done, the ultimate “comment not a question” that’s probably ever been conceived of. Even though it only lasts for about three minutes, it seems to stretch out longer, and it’s crucial that, even though the woman keeps prodding him, Jin-gu is the only one onscreen once the initial accusation is made. Since this is a Hongian man, it’s almost certain that such an interaction did take place, but it’s so agonizing that it’s no wonder that Hong moves on immediately after; the moderator intervenes a few minutes too late.

King of Kisses, then, virtually plays as a mirror of the first half of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, a slow-building seduction, though the sight of Jin-gu huddled on the stairs outside on Christmas Eve, with Oki emerging in a Tweety blanket, is priceless (as is the repeated use of “Pomp and Circumstance” throughout Oki’s Movie, a film about university where no one graduates). But here, too, much more emphasis is placed on little parts that would be almost extraneous to an earlier Hong film: the mystery of Oki’s friend who dropped out, why Oki couldn’t finish her film, Song recanting his praise of Jin-gu’s film. Indeed, the inference is that the first part was, effectively, Jin-gu’s short that he had shown the professor. There’s almost the temptation to treat Oki’s Movie like Hollis Frampton’s “(nostalgia),” where his short in the first part is left off-screen and each subsequent part playing as a response to the one that came before it. Alternatively, the short could be Oki’s Movie, thus making the film an odd Möbius strip (though that seems unlikely), or even “Lost in the Mountains,” which itself is a mirror of the Jung-Moon-Lee triangle — Kim Jin-kyung, the fourth point on the rectangle from “Lost in the Mountains,” once again plays Jung’s friend, though she’s outside of the entangled relationships here — though it being described as a reflection of Jin-gu’s perspective makes this unlikely. The milk carton is in some ways a useful encapsulation of the film: why is this part here, and how can something so small change the entire universe?

That same question could be applied to the third part, which is in some ways an even more radical shift than its predecessor. While Song has technically appeared in more of the film than Oki, he was always clearly situated as a secondary character, someone to be looked up to. This reframing is partially helped by seeing him in a classroom that looks more akin to one for grade school than film school; for the first half, he is left adrift without his students, eating a sandwich and using the restroom. The reappearance of the professor who left the school while castigating Song in the first part is another surprise, as does Song’s apparent subordinate position to him; whether this is how Song sees himself, or a greater understanding of the situation that Jin-gu doesn’t have access to, is left unanswered. Once Oki and Jin-gu arrive, the dynamic totally shifts, and the impromptu Q&A session reminded me of, of all things, Jean-Pierre Melville’s scene in Breathless, these short, almost koan answers to questions; Oki’s question about whether they’re human beings or animals calls back to both Hahaha and On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate. The sight of Song vomiting up an entire octopus, along with the zoom-in on it, is both gross and somewhat liberating; the text messages that the two students are genuinely sweet, while also hinting at Oki’s possible affair with him.

The sense of liberation that Song possesses upon quitting teaching is immediately refracted in Oki’s Movie. Her use of constant reflective voiceover, constantly highlighting the similarities and differences between the two days, two years and a day apart — weirdly similar to the Before Trilogy — reminded me of both Varda and, of all people, James N. Kienitz Wilkins in its interrogation of what these images mean. Like Hong’s films to come, two similar events are placed side by side, the disjunctions helping us in some ways to reckon with our recollections. The tone is truly serene, only really interrupted by the argument Oki and Song have — as an ironic side note, despite the frequent mention of Jin-gu’s heavy drinking that’s even demanded to be cut down by his wife, this is the first Hong without soju in it. Maybe most striking of all is the relative talkativeness of the first day, the feeling of connection that was severed at an unknown time in the intervening years; it’s so touching to hear how Oki enjoyed being held and the genuine joy on the three characters’ faces, even as the viewer knows that it’s all in the past. The third-to-last shot is maybe my favorite in Hong so far: it initially begins as the long-awaited accompaniment to the shot of Oki waiting for Song outside the restroom; then it pans over to Song in the distance, clad in a long overcoat and wearing an enigmatic yet understanding smile as he walks off; then moves back to a stricken Oki. The simple choreography of that shot that nevertheless connects back to so much is basically breathtaking.

The closing voiceover, which nominally is Oki’s reflection that this means of reflecting her guilt and exhilaration on the occasion of remembering the two days, then brings the meta-nature of Oki’s Movie into full tilt. The viewer is led to question whether we have actually seen Oki at all, and whether this entire film is a project undertaken by three or four directors who use and reuse actors in the same or similar roles. Certainly, the use of opening credits for each segment — amusingly laid out like a slide projector — would support this. The voiceover does sound like Jung to me, though of course Oki could have had her actress voice her. Said questions are left blessedly unanswered, and the viewer is thus put into the drifting mindspace of Oki herself, having gotten to reflect on some things while pondering the essential questions in life: why is this thing in the universe? how do you control your sex life? why do you love someone? Song answers that for everything important in life, he doesn’t know the reason for it; Hong recognizes the ultimate limits, but by placing all these fragments together Oki’s Movie brings us closer to understanding.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Hahaha

English Title: Hahaha
Korean Title: 하하하
Premiere Date: May 6, 2010
U.S. Release Year: N/A
Festival: Cannes (Prix Un Certain Regard)
Film Number: 10
First Viewing Number: 14
First Viewing Date: September 1, 2018
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 8
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 11
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 16
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 8
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 116 minutes (6th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color and Black & White
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Linear with two alternating protagonists, light repetition
Recurring Actors: Kim Sang-kyung (third appearance), Yoo Joon-sang (second appearance), Ye Ji-won (second appearance), Gi Ju-bong (second appearance), Kim Yeong-ho (second appearance), Moon So-ri (first appearance), Youn Yuh-jung (first appearance)
Season: Summer
Weather: Rainy, cloudy, windy, sunny
Alcohol: Soju, makgeolli, Hite beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Water, coffee, iced tea
Food: Globefish soup, watermelon, pig intestine, oyster, banchan, seafood, sea snails, peanuts, cake, tofu soup, dried squid
Drinking Scenes: 11
Creative People: Poets, film director, film critic, theatre actor, curator
Academia: Professors
Vacation: 3
Dream Sequences: 1
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 4
Family: Son-mother
Vehicle Scenes: 4
Crying Scenes: 6
Number of Shots: 89 + 37 stills
Number of Zooms: 35 out, 68 in
Music Style: Calm synth piano and strings, pensive piano
Title Background: Stills
Voiceover: 2

What helps distinguish Hong’s prolific career from those of, say, Koreeda Hirokazu, Johnnie To, or Miike Takashi is what his detractors would call laziness/repetitiveness and what his acolytes call a perceived effortlessness, a simplicity of means and production that yields endless variations. If I’m not mistaken, Hahaha, one of the greatest Hongs that didn’t play in the New York Film Festival, is the very first film produced solely by Jeonwonsa — the now familiar and totally charming logo of four people at play at last makes its debut here (edit: there’s a ball that doesn’t appear in the other iterations of the logo) — and the first one made under his similarly patented if insane working method: each day of shooting, he wakes up at 4 AM and writes the scenes and dialogue for the day; only the locations, the actors, the broad outlines of the characters, and maybe a minimal treatment are set beforehand, and after quick dialogue memorizations the scenes are filmed. Despite what might appear to be a complex structure, full of consideration for character movements and relationships, Hahaha feels beholden to this method on its first try in the best way possible: like many of Hong’s best films, it transforms, embodying so many of his predilections in a narrative that plays it both ways, propelling him into his middle period with one eye gazing back.

Fittingly, even though Hahaha features two male protagonists instead of the sole woman that comes to define his middle period films, it almost plays like an intertwining of two separate films with shared characters, each tackling different concerns with each man that come together harmoniously. Much of this tight-knit quality comes from the steady rhythm of only a few scenes at a time, carefully alternating between the two perspectives while making the chronological connections logical. I had forgotten that the only time that Moon-kyung and Joong-sik are actually in the same scene is the hilarious hanger beating from the former’s mother — it’s so weird to think a Hong actor has an Academy Award; Youn Yuh-jung’s brusque tenderness is put to great use in both this film and the middle period — while the latter is passed out in the backroom. Incidentally, Joong-sik might be the first Hong protagonist that’s especially vulnerable to alcohol; he gets hangovers multiple times, which happen in Hong’s films surprisingly rarely, considering the amount of alcohol ingested.

Instead, their links are established by the supporting characters and those oh-so-lovely black-and-white stills — potential references to Out 1 perhaps. Of course, they’re presented in a deliberately contrasting style from the main film: black-and-white freeze-frames versus color video. But it also evokes a certain sense of time standing still that Hong hasn’t necessarily explored much: by only capturing these fleeting moments of drinking, captured in voiceover that actually feels like dialogue in their little chuckles and clinking of makgeolli bowls, the sense of time is completely at sea. The viewer has no clue how much they’ve drunk or how long they’ve been talking, but is allowed to simply wonder and enjoy the company of these two friends. Their early intent to only talk about the pleasant parts of their vacations isn’t necessarily met, but this narrative existing on top of another narrative casts a nostalgic, almost wistful feeling over the whole proceedings, a warmth not really found in early Hong.

What Hahaha does otherwise, however, is both an elaboration and examination of little truisms espoused by Hong characters in the past, expanding it to essentially become a film about worldviews and how they affect relationships. Motifs recur: both men are caught outside Seong-ok’s door like Kim Sang-kyung in On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate — indeed, Moon-kyung is essentially the same character as Kim’s in that film and in Tale of Cinema — and there’s even a similar ferry ride; the bare apartment that Jeong-ho occupies weirdly reminds me of the end of The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. Moon-kyung’s sexual prowess seems to be a direct reference to his moves in On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate.

But the impetus for the film’s most fascinating concerns comes from none other than Jung Yu-mi’s character in Like You Know It All; while her full ascendancy to middle Hong icon hasn’t occurred yet, her monologue becomes the source of potential revelation for Moon-kyung, albeit delivered in an amazing dream sequence by Admiral Yi — played by Kim Yeong-ho, the lead of Night and Day. Whether through Jesus or through this 16th century hero of Tongyeong, the advice feels divinely inspired, the exhortation to only look at the good things in life handed down to people awestruck by the experience.

Of course, in Hong’s world things are never so simple, and in a near-miraculous transference the sentiment seems to pass from Moon-kyung to Joong-sik — who had previously been talking about cowardice and struggling with commitment — during the latter’s acupuncture, albeit with a twist: the general command to look at things differently is refined to occupy one person’s perspective: Yeon-joo, who has a happier outcome than her role as the first lover in On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate. This reframing might also be connected to the structure of the film; even more than most Hong films, each scene is presented as explicitly the point of view of its protagonist, without the counterbalancing of something like Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. While some moments are hilarious in the way that the storyteller doesn’t seem to understand how he might be viewed — Moon-kyung following Seong-ok to her house, the unpleasant encounter with the beggar — there’s generally a greater affection for the characters that, while still carrying no small amount of satire, doesn’t come close to the repeated failures of Kyeong-nam in Like You Know It All.

The love hexagon that seems to develop in Hahaha — even though Joong-sik and Yeon-joo don’t get entangled with anyone else despite the former’s eyeing of Jeong-hwa’s figure — is as absurd as anything Hong’s done yet, and, along with Moon-kyung’s mother and the curator, helps this to be his fullest portrait yet of a place, albeit that of Tongyeong as experienced by full-fledged summer vacationers. By virtue of all these chance encounters and recurring places, the town does truly feel small, one where couplings can arise without warning; I don’t think Jeong-ho and Jeong-hwa ever cross paths onscreen until they are seen entering the hotel together. The moment when a hotel door opens after Moon-kyung and Seong-ok enter the hotel and nobody emerges is even more well-timed than when Moon-kyung’s mother emerges and walks the other way just as the couple leaves.

Likewise, this is maybe the first Hong that truly delves into artistic sensibilities, aside from maybe a few scenes in Night and Day. The communal nature of poetry, an art that’s convenient to depict due to it being fairly short in audible form, is established early on, helping both to make Jeong-ho look more ridiculous in his youthful obsession and to capture some measure of growth on Moon-kyung and Joong-sik’s parts. It also gives Joong-sik and Jeong-ho the chance on multiple occasions to debate viewpoints — faux-existentialism vs. self-truth, sensitivity vs. insensitivity — in conversations that get across the nature of intellectual dialogue in a way no Hong film has truly tackled before. As a great counter-balance, there’s the women also sitting at the table; Hong uses them as a way to deflate what could be circular arguments, especially in how he zooms in to isolate them in the frame. On the flip side, Seong-ok’s speech — Moon So-ri is another of the great Hong regulars of this period, though I don’t quite recall her roles at the moment — almost plays like the historian’s version of Kyeong-nam’s passionate response in the Q&A in Like You Know It All, artistry/work as self-expression that should be vigorously protected.

Hahaha walks a fine line in maintaining an even tone (if not intent) and consistent characters without ever making it too obvious for one or the other man that they’ve been talking about the same people. It helps, of course, that Moon-kyung only ever encounters Jeong-ho at the latter’s most extreme levels of emotion — the ability to take a punch seems like an extension of the arm-wrestling in Night and Day and Like You Know It All, with Moon-kyung describing the onlookers’ awe (or perhaps pity) in a similar manner to the onlookers in those films. There’s a measure of compartmentalization that feels true to the way people live their lives: Seong-ok having an argument with Jeong-ho before going to work where she meets Moon-kyung; the two of them having a reasonable conversation after the rancor of the previous night.

While Moon-kyung is clearly the center of his story, remaining pretty focused on his courtship of Seong-ok while also incorporating his relationship with his mother and desire to see good in his deceased father, Joong-sik — in keeping with Yoo Jun-sang’s leading roles in Hong films to come — often comes across as an observer more than a participant, his relative fidelity to Yeon-joo (at the expense of his fidelity to his wife and family) leading him to be nominally overshadowed by Jeong-ho’s demonstrativeness, his depression and conspicuous attempts to cope the precise opposite of Moon-kyung’s brazen confidence and lack of self-awareness. It’s only when he’s alone or with her that he truly takes center stage, watermelon eating to rival Lee Kang-sheng; his rueful observation that you “can’t win with women” exists on a perfect seesaw with the expression on his face when he finds Yeon-joo in the blanket shop.

The emotional dynamics within scenes tend to be more stretched out, especially in the intellectual/artistic debates and the great confrontation between Moon-kyung and Seong-ok in the hotel lobby; the throwing down of grass calls to mind all manner of plants in Hong’s cinema, including the latter’s love of flowers. It also allows for more unexpected forms of transference, including the mother-son-like relationship that develops between Moon-kyung and Jeong-ho, the latter staying behind and essentially taking his place/hat/apartment. And the scene with Joong-sik’s uncle is handled so well, a cut covering so much drinking in order to cast away cowardice; the theater faux-soju drinking scene is reminiscent of the one in Tale of Cinema, and also probably isn’t too far off from how Hong handles his scenes.

It really is perfect how well Hahaha reflects this moment of transition for Hong, where the supposedly subordinate or less assertive storyline slowly becomes the one that triumphs over the more identifiably early period narrative. Yoo, of course, will appear in many Hongs to come, and his tender commitments to Yeon-joo on that bus to close out the film without a visual return to the friends almost plays as a response to the numerous scenes of anguish on buses in the earliest Hong films. Kim, on the other hand, makes his last Hong appearance here; his declarations of purity ultimately come to naught, foiled by fate and preexisting connections, and Tongyeong returns to its previous state — Jeong-ho’s apparent rejection of Jeong-hwa in favor of reconnecting with Seong-ok completes the circle of its own side narrative as Moral Tale. While Kim’s heard in the closing moments, he’s last seen on the ferry from behind, gazing into the water. After the film he’s presumably off to experience Canada; maybe he’s still living out there in Hong’s multiverse.

The globefish soup that’s remarked upon and consumed so often in Hahaha provides a handy metaphor for what makes this Hong film so special for me. While it’s specifically mentioned as Moon-kyung’s mother’s restaurant’s staple, the two men seem to automatically assume that they ate at different places and met with different people. The perspective of Hong films before has been of one person, caught in their own repetitions; of course this film has some in its recurring motifs of poem writing and reuse of restaurants and places. But starting here and going forward, the perspective is becoming more universal and able to capture the “infinite worlds possible,” yet at the same time Hahaha casts Tongyeong as a kind of sandbox and area of exploration. The play of perspectives and self-realizations with the same figures and places is such a joy to watch, even if the men can’t see it; even self-enlightenment doesn’t mean you can know it all.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Lost in the Mountains

English Title: Lost in the Mountains
Korean Title: 첩첩산중/Cheobcheobsanjung/In the Mountains
Premiere Date: August 14, 2009
U.S. Release Year: N/A
Festival: Locarno
Film Number: N/A
First Viewing Number: N/A
First Viewing Date: March 22, 2018
Viewing Number: 3
Ranking (at beginning of run): N/A
Ranking (at end of run): N/A
Film Number (including shorts): 10
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 14
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 25
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 31 minutes (27th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: JD Video
Structure: Linear
Recurring Actors: Jung Yu-mi (second appearance), Moon Sung-keun (second appearance), Lee Sun-kyun (second appearance), Kim Jin-kyung (first appearance)
Season: Autumn
Weather: Sunny
Alcohol: Soju, Hite beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, water, Coca-Cola
Food: Hot pot, banchan, tofu soup
Drinking Scenes: 2
Creative People: Writers
Academia: Writing professor and students
Vacation: 1
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: N/A
Family: Daughter-mother
Vehicle Scenes: 1
Crying Scenes: 3
Number of Shots: 43
Number of Zooms: 4 out, 12 in
Music Style: Dramatic piano
Title Background: Shot of Mi-sook driving
Voiceover: Yes

I’m finally getting into the phase of Hong’s work where I’ve seen the films multiple times, his style is becoming even more familiar, and it’s even harder than before for me to be anywhere close to objective and not get caught up in the intensely humorous sweep of his films. “Lost in the Mountains,” as Hong’s first short, presents an especially interesting case study in my history with Hong. When I first started getting into Hong, even though I mostly started with the shorter work I felt that a certain duration was essential to his comedy, lengthening out the possibilities of each scene, and so I had a hard time believing that it would translate well to a short. I always viewed “Lost in the Mountains” as basically a compression, smushing the action of one of his normal films into half an hour; ironically I wrote my first and one of my only full-length pieces on it with this idea in mind. But I loved it to a much greater degree on this third watch; maybe I’ve just fallen even more for Hong’s style, or maybe “Lost in the Mountains” has an intent and importance in Hong’s evolution all its own.

As with everything Hong, both due to his productivity and the generative force rewatches provide, analyses are always shifting. Case in point: I just mentioned Sean Gilman’s three-period thesis yesterday, but he issued a new division today: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well to Like You Know It All, “Lost in the Mountains” to Claire’s Camera, The Day After to the present, with the former two presaged by the last part of Woman on the Beach and Right Now, Wrong Then respectively. That makes sense to me, and it’s especially fascinating that the dividing films both come in multi-film years for Hong. I’ll obviously get into this as we go on, but taking “Lost in the Mountains” specifically as the first film of the middle Hong period makes this short much more significant than it initially appears.

Produced as part of the omnibus film Visitors, which was the 2009 iteration of the Jeonju Digital Project, an initiative by the Jeonju International Film Festival to fund three directors’ short films — Hong’s compatriots were Lav Diaz and Kawase Naomi — “Lost in the Mountains” feels as essential as any of his features. While it appears to be shot on standard-definition video, if it isn’t merely an old transfer — this is one of two Hong films that doesn’t have a strong HD release — it both fits in and breaks from Hong’s previously established aesthetic. The opening and closing are especially notable: quick cuts between tall buildings — apartments in Seoul, motels in the mountains of Jeonju — which recall, of all things, Alain Resnais’s epochal Muriel, or the Time of Return; Richard Brody has compared Hong to Resnais, which I don’t feel nearly as strongly as Rivette or Rohmer though it’s worth considering. Aside from establishing a link between the two cities, it also acts as a kind of reminder of the odd oppressiveness of the city that Mi-sook can’t escape from.

“Lost in the Mountains” isn’t really an oppressive film though. Like You Know It All was a perfect send-off to Hong’s early period; while extremely funny, it definitely represented a certain apotheosis of the relatively straightforward skewering of Korean men. Now, the Jung Yu-mi era has arrived, a collection of films nearly as significant to Hong as his initial run of Kim Min-hee films. The main trio of Jung Yu-mi, Moon Sung-keun — looking a good deal older nine years after Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors — and Lee Sun-kyun recurs again in Oki’s Movie, and Lee establishes himself during this period as just as vital as Jung. The other two key actors in the short, Kim Jin-kyoung (edit: she appears again in Oki’s Movie) and Eun Hee-kyung, on the other hand, appear to have only acted this one time, though their presences are very game.

But while it breaks from her perspective a few times and the roundelay of people is a treat, “Lost in the Mountains” belongs to Jung, as forcefully as any male Hong protagonist thus far. Hers is the first female voiceover, which narrates action more directly than in his features, likely for runtime reasons; even post-nudity Hong would have probably shown some of the “weird stuff” that Mi-sook and Jeon attempt in the motel. She is also given some exquisite moments of sheer abandon which only his men possessed before (save perhaps Mun-suk in Woman on the Beach, this period’s precursor): her assertion that she’ll sleep with every man before she dies, her request for Myung-woo to kiss her and subsequent mortifying make-out session at the same table as Jin-young, and most of all her fed-up tossing of the coffee cup, one of my very favorite Hong moments.

There is also a greater sense of purpose amid the hopelessness that Mi-sook feels, which is amped up to a degree that registers more fervently as comedy than it did for Hong in the past. Her quest to become a strong writer is articulated more clearly than, say, Kyeong-nam’s search for his identity in Like You Know It All or even Jung-rae’s attempt to write his script in Woman on the Beach; even though her visit to Jeonju is impromptu (it’s so amusing how she asserts her lack of fear of driving), she tries to make the step of going to the writer’s house; that she so quickly crumples after the writer remembers seeing her with Jeon yesterday heightens the scenario all the more. I don’t remember if this same drive is articulated all throughout this middle period, but it’s definitely a shift.

What really shifted for me on this watch of “Lost in the Mountains,” besides the greater hilarity I found, is how tightly constructed it is without feeling plotty; it feels truly driven by Mi-sook’s impulses, breaking away from the group when it gets unbearable. The set of three phone calls that each ex-student makes to Jeon is truly deft, and the quick agglomeration of all this detail etches out this particular culture as surely as in his stronger features.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Like You Know It All

English Title: Like You Know It All
Korean Title: 잘 알지도 못하면서/Jal Aljido Mot-hamyeonseo/Even Though You Do Not Know It That Well
Premiere Date: May 14, 2009
U.S. Release Year: N/A
Festival: Cannes (Director’s Fortnight)
Film Number: 9
First Viewing Number: 20
First Viewing Date: June 28, 2019
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 16
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 9
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 23
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 17
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 126 minutes (4th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Two uneven, linear parts in different locations separated by twelve days, moderate repetition
Recurring Actors: Kim Tae-woo (third appearance), Uhm Ji-won (second appearance), Go Hyun-jung (second appearance), Jung Yu-mi (first appearance), Yoo Jun-sang (first appearance), Seo Young-hwa (first appearance)
Season: Summer (August-September)
Weather: Sunny, rain
Alcohol: Soju, Ballantine’s scotch, Hite and Cass beer, makgeolli
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Water, tea, orange juice, Pepsi
Food: Bean sprout soup with gochujang, sashimi, gondre rice, banchan, squid, shrimp, fried pancake, crackers, fruit, cherry tomatoes, peanuts
Drinking Scenes: 10
Creative People: Film directors, painter, sculptor, ballet dancer, actress, critic, film festival workers
Academia: Film and painting professors and students
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: 1
Film Screening: 2 (no film shown)
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: 1 (classroom)
Naps: 2
Family: Husband-wife
Vehicle Scenes: 1
Crying Scenes: 2
Number of Shots: 93
Number of Zooms: 47 out, 81 in
Music Style: Light strings and harp and xylophone, pensive synth
Title Background: Gray paper
Voiceover: Yes

The great and difficult thing about Hong, or at least many of his admirers’ relationships with him (including myself), is how even great films that would be towards the top of many other directors’ filmographies are *merely* very strong; it was especially the case in my first run-through of his work from 2016-2019 that I would form notions about his films, or perhaps judge them too hastily based on the experience I’ve had with his other works. Probably no film suffered as much as Like You Know It All, which had almost grown into my mind as his The Wayward Cloud (which I still haven’t rewatched), an uncharacteristically nasty film — by this point in his career — that I nevertheless found quite fun to watch. The film is acidic in its own way, but its virtues have grown considerably for me — many consider this to be among Hong’s funniest films, I didn’t agree until this watch — and the weaknesses more integrated into an overall coherent statement.

First, Like You Know It All is his most engagement with the film world yet, with the first third taking place at the Jecheon International Music & Film Festival — running from August 14-19, with the Jecheon Summmer 2008 setting laid out in a streamlined version to the opening title cards in Night and Day — and the second two-thirds set at and around a film school on Jeju Island. He finally shoots inside a movie theater itself, with two priceless depictions of film festival jurors (including Kyeong-nam) falling asleep; makes multiple mentions of DVD screeners including the totally plausible idea that Kyeong-nam wouldn’t own a copy of his own film; and finally includes the first of his hilariously contentious Q&A sequences, though this one only shows one question and takes place in a classroom setting. It’s also so strange to see a White person so initially prominent; I don’t think Michael Wayne Rodgers, who plays Robert, is/was an actual film critic, but he’s hilarious in this. Kyeong-nam’s rootlessness about his lack of financial success despite his renown is incredibly funny. I have to think Hong is speaking at least a little through him where he talks about his creative process as involving “no preconceived ideas,” where he discovers and gathers pieces that he thinks are precious, often from his own life, though I don’t believe he thinks of himself as a philosopher, or that he would consider his films to have “no beautiful images” whatsoever.

Like You Know It All also marks the start of a phase of Hong career that stretched through 2014, which isn’t necessarily related to artistry but rather reputation. Of course, I wasn’t remotely aware of the festival circuit at this time, but it’s very notable that this is the first Hong that wasn’t selected for the New York Film Festival since he was first chosen with On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate. Richard Brody pointed specifically to Manohla Dargis’s scathing New York Times NYFF review of Night and Day as potentially swaying the selection committee, and since this was an era where the NYT did have a great sway over NYFF programming I’m inclined to believe him. This touched off a fraught period of years of distribution for Hong’s films, where it was seemingly arbitrary whether his films would get distribution or even get into NYFF; I wouldn’t put it on this film at all of course, even if it does paint a biting portrait of the film festival world, but it is a noticeable trend.

But, as much as this is a film about the film festival world, I completely failed to notice when I first watched — partly because I was hopping back and forth between early and late Hong chronologically, as per Evan Morgan’s suggestion — that Like You Know It All is perhaps Hong’s most sustained character study yet, which is odd because it’s also probably his most purely Kafkaesque film. Every other film relies more on multiple protagonists and/or structure (even On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, where Kyung-soo is more of an avatar); it could be argued that Soon eventually assumes a similar status as Yoo-jeong from Night and Day, but, despite her substantial dimensionality, she’s featured slightly less.

Kyeong-nam, however, remains front and center throughout all of Like You Know It All; the title is even spoken aloud by Soon, and every situation involves, to one degree or another, an intensely surreal and out-of-control situation coupled with his insensitivity and inability to, as Soon says, take things as they are, to be content with what’s in front of his face. It really is absurd how many people he totally alienates or harms, and the means by which Hong carries this out call back to the extremity of his earliest films: the dreamed death of Sang-yong, carried out so long that it’s only in the last few moments that it registers as unreal; Hyeon-hee’s off-screen rape, which is as unpleasant as the one in Woman Is the Future of Man, perhaps too much so, though she is given more space to speak than in that film; Sang-yong’s attack of Kyeong-nam; the neighbors that catch Kyeong-nam and Soon in flagrante delicto and threaten him with grass cutters.

Each of these comes without warning, things suddenly sprung upon Kyeong-nam; even though he is the main character (in his last of three appearances for Hong), he almost seems to be playing the side characters that disappeared in Woman Is the Future of Man and Woman on the Beach, made into a disgruntled observer that is at the mercy of capricious people and fates, even as he unconsciously does his best to worsen his position. The sequence with him on the riverbed and running out to sea, weirdly reminiscent of The 400 Blows, is a thrilling and necessary respite, and it’s so wickedly funny how he initially seems to find love with Soon, only to find that he’s completely misunderstood the situation.

Hong really goes wild with the zooms here; there are very nearly the same amount of zoom ins alone compared to shots, and they’re generally used here to heighten the tension of the scene or intently focus on faces to a greater degree than before. Part of the reason is the picturesque, summery settings; I think this is the first Hong film that takes place entirely outside of Seoul, though I could be mistaken, and he freely shows off the pretty skies and beaches before zooming back to the characters. There are also some longer takes and pans to follow characters as they traipse through the landscape; the shot where Kyeong-nam looks across the hotel balcony to see Hyeon-hee being comforted genuinely gets across the unexpected voyeurism.

This is also a slow-boil approach to doubling that Hong hasn’t quite opted for before; partially due to the longer runtime of the second two-thirds, Cheon-soo and Soon don’t appear for quite a while, and initially their closer ties to Kyeong-nam would seem to obscure their parallels with Sang-yong and Shin. But it’s fascinating how Hong shuffles little things around, like Kyeong-nam’s confessions of his admiration for Jin-sook and Kyeong-nam while drinking, and unnerving duplicated objects like the rock, which make the final third Kyeong-nam’s alternate take on and failure to totally avoid the traps of the first third, though he does get free of the school drama.

Like You Know It All is probably Hong’s most metatextual use of actors yet, while also introducing a shocking number of his most valuable repertory players in small parts, like in Night and Day. Kim Tae-woo as Kyeong-nam has already been covered. Sang-yong is played by Uhm Ji-won, the actress in Tale of Cinema, who has a similar total rejection of the main character, though she has a much smaller role. Soon is played by Go Hyun-jung, the Woman on the Beach, who also is afforded a certain freedom (in both promiscuity and lack of restrictive bonds) and is last seen leaving a beach; she is the only one who reappears in a Hong film, albeit only for a cameo. By contrast, Jung Yu-mi, Yoo Jun-sang, and Seo Young-hwa all make their first appearances. Already, their personas seem partially set. Jung is open and talks freely — the invocations of Jesus here have the same feeling of vague absurdity as in Night and Day, though it’s ambiguous what exactly Kyeong-nam did besides calling her not an angel. Yoo is a great blusterer, initially presenting a gregarious veneer but frequently veering off into domineering behavior. Even in a small part (she’s never led a Hong film), Seo has that same beatific quality as later on; Kyeong-nam calls her his favorite actor, and there’s an appropriate distance that’s maintained, she steers clear of most of the drama and exits the hotel room before the amazing drinking contest between Hyeon-hee and Jeong-hee — hilariously described in contemptuous voiceover as a porn actress who appeared in a “bogus art film” — begins.

Arm wrestling returns once again from Night and Day; it really is odd how well the protagonists do against the younger men, beating them soundly, and Hong apparently believes that men get better at arm wrestling the older they are. Even though Cheon-soo is a painter (a local hero) and Seong-nam mentions that his arm is incredibly strong from the continued exertion of painting, he doesn’t actually arm wrestle, and the man Kyeong-nam loses to is basically only present in two scenes, almost a personification of the mysterious forces that swirl around him.

That mystery is what compelled me anew about Like You Know It All, the continued emphasis on identity, the most important things in life, and the necessity to know one’s own self and desires. It’s implicitly what drives Kyeong-nam through these odd encounters, along with his desire to just get his duties over with — despite the beautiful settings and pronounced hangout feeling, neither trip is a vacation. But he is continually stymied by his inability to understand people or read situations, all of which respond to him in kind and lead him drifting; even if this does run a bit long, Hong’s drift is so pleasurable to experience.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Night and Day

English Title: Night and Day
Korean Title: 밤과 낮/Bam-goa Nat
Premiere Date: February 12, 2008
U.S. Release Year: 2009
Festival: Berlin
Film Number: 8
First Viewing Number: 23
First Viewing Date: October 13, 2019
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 3
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 8
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 26
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 3
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 144 minutes (1st longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Linear with date title cards, some time jumps
Recurring Actors: Kim Yeong-ho (first appearance), Lee Sun-kyun (first appearance), Gi Ju-bong (first appearance)
Season: Summer (August 8) – Fall (October 12)
Weather: Sunny, cloudy, rain
Alcohol: Red wine, soju, white wine, Heineken beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, tea, water, Coca-Cola, orange juice
Food: Oysters, kimchi soup, charcuterie, bread, seafood tofu soup, kimchi pancake, sandwich, dakjuk, banchan, chips, croissants, gum, pear
Drinking Scenes: 4
Creative People: Painters, film set workers
Academia: Painting students
Vacation: 2
Dream Sequences: 2
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 5
Family: Husband-wife
Vehicle Scenes: 1
Crying Scenes: 5
Number of Shots: 135
Number of Zooms: 29 out, 42 in
Music Style: Symphony No. 7 (Beethoven)
Title Background: Gray burlap
Voiceover: Yes

Night and Day, the first Hong I consider to be a bona fide masterpiece (admittedly a traditional Sallittist opinion), acts as both a synthesis of and a decided break with what came before it, a milestone that he hasn’t really tried to match. The most obvious difference is its length, Hong’s only film to come within striking distance of two and a half hours. But in many ways, at least for me, it’s possibly the lightest film he’s made yet in terms of its progression; this can definitely be attributed to the Rohmerian structure (more on that later), which cuts up the film so as to interrupt cause-and-effect, letting the viewer absorb the feeling of perhaps his ultimate hang-out film. At the same time, there’s just something so pleasing about this. I didn’t necessarily remember this as his funniest film, but it’s definitely a top contender; while it still has its fair share of harrowing moments, this is just chock-full of priceless moments, stemming from the premise and setting itself.

Night and Day also marks two enormous steps forward towards the Hong identity most commonly known until recently — along with a return from his 2007 year off, the last year that Hong didn’t premiere a feature in for more than a decade. As a side note, I had been thinking of Hong in a strictly early and late period (or first and second half) manner, but Sean Gilman recently brought up to me the idea that his current career can be divided into three parts: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well to Woman on the Beach, Night and Day to Hill of Freedom, and Right Now, Wrong Then to the present, with porous boundaries in between.

In this respect, there’s few switches that Hong’s ever had as decisive as his first use of digital to shoot Night and Day, never returning to film again. Truthfully, there doesn’t seem to have been a substantial shift in filming technique; there are no extended takes that film wouldn’t have been executable on a reel, and the approach to panning and zooming has stayed fairly consistent, though he appears to use auto-focus throughout. But part of me wonders whether the longer runtime is in fact a byproduct of the freedom to shoot more scenes, not worrying about wasting film. As far as I can tell, Hong isn’t “improvising” the structure of his films at this point, but it’s certainly possible that Hong planned to have more sequences for this very reason.

The other development is, of course, the use of France, specifically Paris and Deauville. While Night and Day didn’t kick off a sudden wave of Hong films made overseas — I wait with bated breath for the film set in America that he’s been considering for years — the ability to transmute his sensibility to a different locale entirely seems to open up his cinema, allowing him to evoke the great pleasure of watching people exist in a city. He’s certainly helped by the pointed focus on Koreans. It is really fun watching all the random passers-by, but there’s only a few snatches of French (and English), and besides a few merchants the only French people with substantial screen time are the film set workers — this is the first, and as far as I can remember one of the only times he’s actually shown a film set, despite the frequent use of filmmakers as subjects — and the man at the airport. That opening scene is one of Hong’s funniest ever, predicated on the snail’s pace attempts to communicate, and of course punctuated by the man’s exhortation to “be careful,” which likely was meant to relate to personal safety but which, because this is both a Hong film and a film set in France, resonates across an entire spectrum of morality. I’m also not certain whether this was part of the Musée d’Orsay/Louvre film contest that produced Flight of the Red Balloon, Summer Hours, *and* Face; the Orsay scene is incredibly memorable for its depiction of L’Origine du Monde (whose title Seong-nam rejects despite appreciating the artwork), but besides a shot from outside later on the link seems too tangential for it to have been part of that series.

When I first watched Night and Day, I marveled at how this was basically a distillation of all six of Rohmer’s Moral Tales and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore to boot. I still stand by that statement, but since then, I’ve come to embrace the view that Rivette is secretly the greater influence on Hong than Rohmer, and that comes to the fore here. Especially early on, the use of the dates is used for both comedy and playful mystery of purpose, depicting a day with a single mundane action, and skipping ahead a few days or even weeks without any seeming explanation. The days aren’t necessarily free-floating, but the way this dips in and out of scenes recalls nothing less than Out 1 in its exuberant structure.

Still, to return to the other two French influences, they do resonate rather resoundingly throughout Night and Day, both structurally and narratively. While the Moral Tales are the most common Rohmer to cite (and my own most immediate frame of reference, having not watched any of the season films and only some of the Comedies and Proverbs), their stated intent — to depict a man who is tempted by a woman but decides to return to the one he is committed to — do map rather neatly onto the overall narrative arc of the film, especially resembling Love in the Afternoon in its depiction of marriage, though of course Seong-nam goes further than Frédéric does. Likewise, the use of the days recalls (at least for me) The Green Ray, which Hong put on his Sight & Sound list; while that film used it to go beyond a supposedly meaningful date, opening up Delphine’s odyssey to further possibilities, this uses it to stress the absurd amount of time that Seong-nam spends in Paris; the handover between seasons is also handled very well, getting across the relatively epic nature of this film for Hong.

And, while this is more tenuous, there’s something in Night and Day‘s triangulation of the three women in Paris that lies very close to Eustache: Hyeon-joo is Marie, the woman who wants Seong-nam but can’t have him; Yoo-jeong is Veronika, the tempestuous woman who Seong-nam wants but who initially resists him; Min-seon is Gilberte, the ex-lover, though she pursues Seong-nam instead of the other way around. There’s a country mile’s worth less of acidity (even less than I remembered), but the blending of this into the overall Moral Tale narrative lends a great edge and ambiguity: the amazing final dream could be just an absurd subconscious figment, or it could be an actual desire or even a premonition of future divorce to come.

Still, Night and Day is definably Hong’s own from moment one — no attempt to show unmediated reality like Eustache — but there’s so much here that I don’t recall him repeating. For one, there are the opening title cards, which are hilariously specific in noting that it’s the summer of 2007, that he was with American exchange students, that it was his first time smoking marijuana, and that he was notified by his friend Mr. Baek (who is never shown on camera). Especially backed by Beethoven, the farcical profundity is very much the point, assigning a supposed great importance to an event that, despite the strictness of South Korea’s anti-drug laws, isn’t serious at all.

While Night and Day‘s title could be a reference to anything from Cole Porter to Lang to Akerman, I choose to point to Mr. Jang’s early assertion that the sun sets very late in Parisian summers (especially compared to South Korean) and how it can be difficult to differentiate night from day. Indeed, the only scenes I remember being set in darkness in the entire film are the phone calls that Seong-nam makes to his wife at 11 PM, and those take place inside. This also might have something to do with the seemingly total preoccupation that Seong-nam has with clouds and painting them to little monetary success; it makes me wonder whether Hong has seen James Benning’s Ten Skies.

The actors that are featured here forms a truly fascinating picture. Though Kim Young-ho makes a few more appearances, he’s never led a Hong film since, which is kind of baffling because of how totally he nails the self-absorption of a Hongian male while still allowing for a great range of reactions. Likewise, none of the women make another appearance; Park Eun-hye is especially odd because of how well she brings out the coyness and unpredictability that helps unify some of the more disparate threads. On the flip side, both Gi Ju-bong and Lee Sun-kyun make their first of many Hong appearances here in smaller roles; they both ace it but it’s weird seeing them knowing the essential performances they’ll be giving in a few years.

Hong really does have a great feeling for Paris here in quotidian terms, avoiding any especially discernible landmarks (at least for me who’s only been once) and maintaining an openness that allows for the inclusion of such inscrutably sublime moments as the worker who’s sweeping the water and dog feces down the street; the hairtie that Seong-nam spots that seems to match the one Yoo-jeong wears; or the film set, with Seong-nam miraculously breaking the fall of the little bird that is nursed back to health by the PAs and who appears to show up in the airport. While the differences are emphasized by Seong-nam — lack of humidity, the perceived phoniness of the Koreans, the supposed innocence of the French — and much of the comedy comes from his feelings of dislocation and its ability to create so many more moments of discomfort due to culture shock, Hong resists the urge to make it much more or less than a city, which is a mindset where the particulars can truly arise organically.

The brief invocations of religion that Seong-nam deploys based solely off of a serendipitous encounter with a Bible in the cramped guest house are incredibly funny, especially his scene with a towel-clad Min-seon where he reads Matthew 5:29-30 (in reverse order). They represent some of the most extreme self-justifications that a Hong character has used yet, though their intent is for the opposite purpose than the typical attempts at seduction. It’s more ambiguous whether he actually prays in the church while he’s waiting for Yoo-jeong; it could easily be him pretending that he wasn’t taking a nap as he did before.

The arm wrestling is as pure a metaphor for masculinity that Hong has deployed, a sort of surprising vigor that hints at Seong-nam’s hidden depth and strength of character. I also forgot that Lee Sun-kyun’s character is from North Korea; coupled with Seong-nam’s note in the voiceover — which feels closer to how Hong uses voiceover going forward, offering more abstract representations of his character’s thought than mere narrative, a change also applied to the use of music here — that a summit is being held between the two countries, I don’t know if Hong is necessarily trying to make a political point. In a certain sense, it makes more legible the relationship between countries; while Seong-nam can only interact with French people by envying their families, houses, and cars, there are still men on the other side of the DMZ whose egos (and bodies) can be bruised just as easily as his countrymen.

The use of women in Night and Day, aside from the constellation of Korean ex-pats that occasionally rises suddenly, continues the steps taken in Woman on the Beach, at least for Yoo-jeong and Seong-in. The former, after initially being introduced by other’s perceptions of her and in a dream sequence that recalls Claire’s Knee in an eroticization of a body part — between this and the first sex scene in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, does Hong have a foot fetish? — gains her dimensionality from the time spent with her, especially in the scene where he keeps goading her to slap him in masochistic atonement. Her continued concealment of her plagiarism works hand-in-hand with Seong-nam’s own secrets (especially in lying about the reason for his departure), and his decision to keep seeing her without any questions is a perfect tacit blindness to anything except l’amour fou.

Seong-in’s presence already feels established even before her first on-screen appearance; the phone calls feel as vital to Night and Day as anything else, equalling the more visible intimacy in how unguarded they can feel; the moment when she’s asked to masturbate (with a perfect cut-off to the scene) is stretched out the right amount. When she does appear in person, the ease of acceptance of her ruse helps show at least some of Seong-nam’s moral growth, while showing how a woman can now be just as crafty as a man. While Min-seon’s suicide and Hyeon-joo’s gradual disappearance don’t let them have the same impact, the former feels as much of a moral turning point as possible without sensationalizing her death, and the latter still has some wonderful moments, especially in how she echoes the complaint that Yoo-jeong is realistic and stingy (creating a hilarious scenario where Seong-nam is quite literally caught in between the two) and in her delightful scene speaking French with and providing food to the unhoused man.

The closing dream sequence really is a marvel, especially in how it uses none of the main women from before but instead Ji-hye, the student who Yoo-jeong plagiarized from. The leap forward in time is initially obscured by Seong-nam donning a collared shirt and Ji-hye introduced sitting with her back to the camera. The pig ramming into the bathhouse window as Ji-hye cries — I was wrong about there being no subsequent nudity in Hong films, though it’s of women in the background in a non-sexual context — is a perfect juxtaposition of surreal tones, and just as the film threatens to move back into early Hong territory the balance is restored. That this is the first Hong film that ends with the main couple together since Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors with little of the sordidness of that film makes this basically a happy ending. Here, even with the complications, there is something so oddly lovely about Seong-nam’s relative maturation, how his time away and experience with precarity has led him to reconsider priorities. The self-importance and willingness to lie and ultimately abandon Yoo-jeong (with her acceptance) to the possibility of pregnancy are still there, but there’s a kindness as well that truly lifts this Hong heads and shoulders above its predecessors.

Misguided Warriors [EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE]

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert

I don’t usually like to make my life and background the focus of my reviews, since my general inclinations are to let my observations assume their personality from what I choose to write about and to not interfere with the text itself. But Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All at Once begs for me to consider it in light of this. There are certain aspects of myself that, for various reasons, I can’t bring into this piece, but suffice it to say that this film — in how eerily and perfectly it captures my relationships with my parents and my heritage, along with my present circumstances — should have absolutely destroyed me, serving as an absurdist funhouse mirror that nevertheless contained my recognizable visage at the center. That it doesn’t do so (leaving aside any likely emotional deficiencies that I possess) stems from, among other things, its utterly counterproductive ambitions and its ultimate shortsightedness with regards to a certain view of Chinese-American experiences, along with its misunderstanding of Michelle Yeoh; I should say here up front that my parents are from Taiwan while the Wangs are from Hong Kong, but as I’ll get into this slight difference might be even less significant than it originally appears, to the film’s detriment.

Before fully diving in, I do wonder how much of my response to Everything Everywhere All at Once is a direct reaction to the way it has been received as a landmark of Chinese/Chinese-American representation in United States film. It’s certainly something I’ve considered, and has been at least a small part of my negative feelings towards Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell (and, much more tangentially, Minari for Asian-Americans generally). While the merits of these films vary wildly, it’s impossible not to notice that the main thing linking all these films together is that most common of narrative devices, especially with respect to Asians: family. I don’t mean to imply at all that filmmakers of Asian descent should avoid trying to make films explicitly about family; Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is my favorite Chinese-language film after all, and everyone from Fei Mu to Tsai Ming-liang has at one point or another explored what it means to be part of a family. But what comes across as a more quotidian or allegorical concern in those films is “elevated” to something of near-life-or-death consequences, the battle between the parent who wants to preserve the family unit at all costs versus the child who yearns to become more free, who implicitly wants to assimilate (or has) into the Western culture in which they live.

Such a conflict is ballooned, in the style of Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s co-producers and Marvel Cinematic Universe helmers Anthony & Joe Russo, so that Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) must literally save not only the world or the universe, but also the entirety of existence across innumerable parallel universes. As self-consciously ludicrous and unwieldy as the film gets, this struggle is more-or-less construed as, in the film’s twisted logic, the reason everything bad that has ever happened. The various events, no matter when they take place and whether Evelyn and Joy (Stephanie Hsu) are in them, are unmoored and then knit together by the presence of these two people: a mother and a daughter.

I don’t plan to get too much into the head-spinning and likely totally confused weeds of the multiverse, but instead to concentrate on the family relationships plural: for much of the film, due to the apparently unbelievably dangerous force that Joy/Jobu Tupaki — is that meant to be a bastardization of something in Chinese? Doesn’t seem to resemble anything I can remember — possesses, Waymond (Quan Kế Huy) is Evelyn’s companion and mentor, and her father (James Hong) makes a number of appearances, though always presented at a remove. The opening of the film, before part 1’s title “Everything” appears, feels very much in the vein of a recent trend in films that people like the Safdies seem to have ushered in: a barrage of colliding work and family priorities as Evelyn navigates the hectic laundromat patrons, her muddled taxes subject to review by the IRS, her impending Chinese New Year celebration, and of course her ongoing disagreements with Joy over her desire to introduce Becky (the great Tallie Medel, for once flattened into standard bland independent film acting) as her girlfriend to her Gong Gong. If that wasn’t enough, the hapless Waymond is attempting to serve Evelyn divorce papers on that same day, never mind the fact that the spouse can’t actually serve the other spouse their divorce papers.

Of course, this fits Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s general “anything goes” approach, but in doing so it leaves no room to breathe or to consider how this family arrived in this situation. While the flashbacks and alternate branches attempt to fill in Evelyn’s backstory in particular, it’s implied by omission that nothing of importance happened at all during the twenty-some years between Evelyn and Waymond’s emigration to Simi Valley, a span of time only captured by wistful-then-caustic childhood memories captured in 4:3 — the film also follows the current trend of shifting aspect ratios, using 4:3 for flashbacks, 1.85:1 for “normal” scenes and various other pastiches, and 2.35:1 for the martial arts/action sequences, never mind the fact that Yeoh’s prime Hong Kong-era work was shot in 1.85:1.

Indeed, Hong Kong and its place within Everything Everywhere All at Once, especially in relation to Yeoh, forms a prime factor in my mistrust of it and its supposed Chinese-American bona fides. One of the most immediately glaring factors comes in language: the film takes great pains to show the fluid, almost subconscious nature of how immigrants switch between two languages, speaking a few words amid a sentence and/or an entire sentence in English, even when the thought is meant to be conveyed in Chinese. This is really pretty admirable, and very reflective of how I’ve observed my parents interact over the years. However, there’s a confusion that likely isn’t discernible to any viewer who doesn’t have knowledge of Chinese: Evelyn and Waymond, despite (seemingly) being from Hong Kong, speak in Mandarin; this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that Evelyn and her father speak Cantonese to each other throughout, which isn’t reflected in the subtitles at all. Even in the flashback scenes, including the pivotal one where Evelyn and Waymond decide to leave together for America against her father’s wishes, the two of them are speaking Mandarin. The most cynical interpretation would be that the filmmakers deliberately chose Mandarin over Cantonese in an effort to further appeal to the mainland Chinese market; I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, but it’s carried out at such length that I wonder if it was the filmmakers’ unfamiliarity with the language or some other factor that led to this break with their characters’ place of birth.

This, however, isn’t as egregious as Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s near-total abandonment of Chinese for large sections of the film. It certainly can’t be a coincidence that the Alpha Waymond and Alpha Gong Gong, the two characters who have the brunt of the exposition that hurriedly explains the rules and quirks of the multiverse, exclusively speak English with Yeoh responding in kind, even in the scenes that are slower and more heartfelt. This could be maybe weakly explained away by the Alpha universe not utilizing Chinese anymore, though it *is* worth noting that the only other people seen in the technologically advanced Alpha universe are not Asian, which sticks out in a film mostly committed to casting as many Asians in speaking parts as possible. If I remember correctly, Chinese isn’t spoken in the climax at all save for Evelyn’s final acceptance of Joy, for me a very affecting scene that nevertheless speaks to many of the film’s ultimate problems, which I’ll get to in a moment.

First, I have to talk about Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s main draw: Michelle Yeoh, who eventually decidedly won out over my hatred of the wretched Swiss Army Man, Kwan and Scheinert’s previous directorial collaboration. The film is clearly in large part a tribute to and vehicle for Yeoh; while it’s patently false to claim this as Yeoh’s first starring role, it does aim to showcase her talents, though the action here generally doesn’t have anything near the weight of golden era Hong Kong cinema. I can’t be so contrarian to claim that, say, her recent supporting performance in Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy is better than this (though it’s close), and she is indeed very strong in both martial arts poses and emotional vigor alike. But the more this ventures into a meta-text, the more it fails to come close to the pathos of Yeoh’s actual career. The universe that gets the most screen time — the hot dog fingers one is likely a close second — is the one where Evelyn breaks up with Waymond stays in Hong Kong. After getting mugged, she decides to learn kung fu — her female master is played by Li Jing, best known for doing stunts in the awful live-action Mulan; in a film where Yeoh, Quan, Hong, and even the originally cast Awkwafina (in Hsu’s role) were likely all chosen at least in part for their metatextual resonances, this uninspired choice is one of countless missed opportunities in the film — and become essentially Michelle Yeoh. While she retains her Evelyn name, it’s genuinely kind of stunning when the film cuts to actual red carpet footage, a piercing of the thick veil that the film has wrapped around itself in order to fully cement its connection to reality — even if it is for the personally offensive Crazy Rich Asians.

But Yeoh, who was born in Malaysia to a Malaysian Chinese family, didn’t grow up in Hong Kong or learn kung fu in order to break into the entertainment industry. As laid out by Sean Gilman in his typically essential MUBI Notebook article, she, like Cheng Pei-pei and Zhang Ziyi, never learned kung fu, instead utilizing her ballet training to aid in her understanding of the moves, along with her daredevil approach to doing her own stunts. Additionally, she grew up speaking English and Malay, even deciding to go down the career path of action rather than comedy where she felt her still-burgeoning Cantonese wasn’t good enough; she had to learn her Mandarin lines in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — still the greatest performance of hers for me, and in a number of ways a vastly superior consideration of what it is to be a woman and mother (figure) in Chinese-centered society — phonetically. Quan’s history, while less storied, still remains complicated; he was born in Saigon to a Hoa family with Han Chinese ancestry. If I’m not mistaken, they were of Cantonese descent, and he resided briefly in Hong Kong before emigrating to the United States, thereafter bouncing back and forth between the two continents on film shoots during his hiatus from acting; endearingly, he still retains something of the squeakiness of his voice from his role as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Kwan & Scheinert, however, for all the supposed imagination they possess, can’t seem to bother with crafting anything close to the immensely complex and fascinating possibilities that Chinese heritage, across national and local borders, possesses. Their ideas of heritage in this lugubrious 139 minute film are simply reduced to “Hong Konger chooses to defy her parents and move to America.” Even a film that takes a decision to immigrate as a starting point, like Mabel Cheung’s lovely An Autumn’s Tale, or as a late-breaking plot point, like Peter Chan’s masterpiece Comrades: Almost a Love Story, knows that cities and places are realms to inhabit and to render as believable places full of genuine interactions, that there is a specific relationship that Chinese people have between their homeland and this strange new place they’ve come to.

When I was growing up in Irvine, where Asians formed a sizable proportion of the population, I was fairly blasé with my ethnicity, shrugging off attempts to learn Chinese and becoming rapidly bored with my family’s semi-frequent trips to Taiwan and China. As I started to live in a city where I habitually interacted with people of different heritages and became more obsessed with Chinese film, I found my love for my native country, experiencing a pronounced longing that still persists within me.

In Simi Valley, which is overwhelmingly White and where Chinese people make up 1.2% of the population, I’d expect there to be more of a desire to engage with what it means to leave a place. After all, in a multiverse that has room for a 2-D animated world, an admittedly very funny and well-executed Earth where no life developed and Evelyn and Joy are manifested as rocks, and a party where the two women are piñatas, it would seem that getting an idea of what a place means to a person, whether they live in it or apart from it, would be essential to ground the film. But there is apparently no room for such supposedly mundane considerations even in a film called Everything Everywhere All at Once, even in one where the mundane issue of not revealing a child’s sexual orientation to their grandfather — something immensely common in a Chinese-American culture where Evelyn’s very acceptance of Joy’s queerness isn’t the norm — lights the fuse for the near-collapse of existence.

Before going further, I should mention that Everything Everywhere All at Once isn’t all bad, and has some interesting and genuinely really good parts. Yeoh, Hsu, Quan, and Hong are all quite strong and do their best to sell the ludicrous sentimentality of the film; Hsu especially does well with the attitude and blithe disregard that her villainous incarnations have to play. And there’s a stretch of about thirty seconds when Yeoh entirely fractures the multiverse that, in its rapid editing using Yeoh (I think) as its focal point, plays like something close to Jodie Mack.

However, it’s easy to nitpick Everything Everywhere All at Once, given its sprawling canvas and refusal to let even the smallest gag be resolved in a non-happy ending — the implication of course being that this one declaration of love is enough to right the wrongs across all manifestations of space and time. I could point to my annoyance with the laundromat showing some British-Indian musical romance with dancing — even without probable colonialist intimations, why isn’t it a Chinese film? It could even have been an homage to Li Han-hsiang’s heartbreaking The Love Eterne, one of the most popular films in Hong Kong history and itself, via a simple but devastating conceit, a watershed queer film that might have played off well against the supposed central issue.

There’s even the issue of the Wong Kar-wai homage, which bafflingly deploys the green filter used on In the Mood for Love‘s Criterion reimagining. Quan’s suit certainly recalls Tony Leung’s, though I don’t think Yeoh is wearing a cheongsam; Quan was the assistant director on 2046, while Yeoh of course has never been in a Wong film. But aside from a few blurred/step-framed shots, the film is shot in the same bland digital as the rest of the film, with fixed frames and shots that are just-off-center, coming nowhere close to the hazy romanticism of Wong’s films. Like everything else in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and utterly unlike Wong, who even introduces complexity into his voiceovers, there’s no depth, no ambiguity as to what’s being depicted or discussed; it’s simply a near-monologue by Waymond recounting his abiding longing for Evelyn.

That very lack of depth is what makes the insufferably simple resolution ring so hollow, where “the everything everywhere all at once was love” is the message the viewer is *supposed* to take away from Everything Everywhere All at Once. While love is unconditional, the circumstances in which you see loved ones are not; love (at least between humans) can be in some ways strengthened by distance and should be seen as something that takes so many different forms. But Kwan and Scheinert see love as an unyielding thing that can be sealed by a single act; even Evelyn’s decision to let go is repaid by Joy coming back instead of going into the abyss. That it comes so close to getting it, so close to getting me and my situation, makes it bother me all the more.

April 2022 Capsules

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
I’m sure others have discussed the Céline and Julie Go Boating parallels/potential homage by Rivette, but it’s fascinating how Lorelei and Dorothy’s own pantomime relies on a relative interchangeability that Céline and Julie decidedly lack. Despite their differing viewpoints on the attractiveness of a man, they both share an unabashed openness about said views, and consequently are able to inhabit each other, whether in intelligence or lunacy, shrewdness or naivetie. Like so much of the film, the illusion is as alluring as the reality, and the space created to inhabit it is as immaculate and wondrous as they come.

All of the Lights [WOOD AND WATER]

Wood and Water

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Jonas Bak

Without getting into the thoroughly litigated relationship between fiction and non-fiction, there’s always a certain charge when “unmediated” reality recognizably intervenes within a fictional narrative. The difference between, say, a group of extras and a crowd of random pedestrians can produce startling ruptures in the diegesis, and transmute the documentary qualities present within the act of filming to a wider consideration of time and place, of how society collectively chooses to interact with their setting and culture.

One of the most special parts of Jonas Bak’s feature debut Wood and Water is its play with this constant, and how casually it integrates what in other films would be the lynchpin of their concept. For while the glimpses of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, seen both from high-above and briefly on the street, are moving and presented with a certain vital distance, it remains resolutely focused on its central character. Anke (Anke Bak, the director’s mother), who recently retired from her quiet work in a church office in rural Germany, has come to the city in an attempt to reconnect with her son. The 79-minute film makes its leap across the continents a third of the way through, only returning to shrouded trees in brief dream sequences.

While Wood and Water isn’t strictly based on a true story, it constructs its drive along two aesthetic and narrative parallel lines: the family relationship and the evocation of the countryside and the city. Essential to both is the fundamental sense of warm austerity that permeates throughout each setting and Bak’s style: while frequently light on dialogue and filmed in long shot, with trees and skyscrapers often totally dwarfing Anke in the frame, Brian Eno’s score and the hazy 16mm photography lends an entirely different feeling to either the wild dynamism or hard-etched grit that represent the greatest extremes of the region’s films before the turn of the century.

In forging this middle-ground but nonetheless adventurous approach, Bak extends the curiosity of his mother to the potential of discovery within Wood and Water. The ruminative conversations between Anke and various family members in the first third have their own immediate sense of intimacy, going on small tangents while emphasizing the drift of the rural setting. By contrast, the very first night in Hong Kong thrusts Anke into a shared hostel room, as she talks with the woman in her top bunk, another tourist about to leave the city after residing there for a number of years who is only seen in silhouette. Over an extended take, they speak much more tentatively yet concretely, and the much younger tourist piercingly comments that the aging mother’s story “is just beginning.”

This delicate balance between the old and the new becomes the unspoken engine of Wood and Water, whose own title refers to the Chinese fortune telling elements of wood and water. Anke is identified with water, signifying her nobility, with wood being her greatest deficiency. The advice to move to the forest is gently recognized as being inaccurate later in her conversation with her impromptu translator — an elderly social activist and former artist played by Ricky Yeung, the only professional actor in the cast — but the scene is just as moving in its presentation, long reams of unsubtitled Cantonese followed by translations, as it is in the observations the fortune teller does get right.

Most of the Hong Kong denizens Anke interacts with appear to be around her age, but Wood and Water is as much a present film as it is a nostalgic one, albeit a kind of modernity that both attracts and excludes Anke. She is seen either on the ground level, gazing at nearby actual protestors before walking away, or elevated in her son’s high-rise apartment, looking at the distant lights and tear gas clouds through glass. By the end of the film, a unity of thought and existence is demarcated, but it exists just as brilliantly in the transition between the two parts, two tracking shots through two tunnels. Another filmmaker would make it seamless, probably taking advantage of the darkness to disguise a cut. Bak instead opts to focus on the lights on the roof of the tunnel, as they pass by, fall into darkness, then switch to an entirely different design of lights to show the shift in location. Settings thus become two sides of the same coin, a commonality of purpose that is manifested with vastly different means, both of which are represented with the same wonder.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Woman on the Beach

English Title: Woman on the Beach
Korean Title: 해변의 여인/Haebyeoneui yeoin
Premiere Date: August 31, 2006
U.S. Release Year: 2008
Festival: Toronto, New York
Film Number: 7
First Viewing Number: 22
First Viewing Date: August 26, 2019
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 14
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 7
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 25
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 14
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 127 minutes (2nd longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: 35mm
Structure: Three linear unlabeled parts each separated by two days, moderate repetition in first two
Recurring Actors: Kim Tae-woo (second appearance), Moon Sung-keun (second appearance), Lee Ki-woo (second appearance), Song Seon-mi (first appearance), Go Hyun-jung (first appearance)
Season: Spring
Weather: Sunny, windy
Alcohol: Soju, Cass beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Tea, coffee, Coca-Cola
Food: Sushi, sweet potato, peanuts, pineapple, fried fish, bean soup, fried eggs, rice, tteokbokki, gum
Drinking Scenes: 8
Creative People: Film director/writer, musician
Academia: N/A
Vacation: Yes (two)
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: N/A
Family: Daughter-father (off-screen)
Vehicle Scenes: 4
Crying Scenes: 3
Number of Shots: 102
Number of Zooms: 15 out, 39 in
Music Style: Sprightly piano and strings, winds and xylophone, somber piano, strings bells, piano and guitar
Title Background: Gray fabric
Voiceover: N/A

Woman on the Beach is something of a transitional film for Hong, if not quite as strong a break as On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate or Tale of Cinema was with its evolutions. For one, this is the first film of his without nudity or on-screen sex, which I believe has held for the rest of his career; this makes a bigger difference than one might think, as that graphic, often mortifying release often took something away from the moments of intimacy. This also might be the first film produced (co-produced in this case) by his production company Jeonwonsa, though a Korean website says that Tale of Cinema was the first. And most crucially, this is arguably the first Hong where a woman’s perspective forms the majority of the runtime, depending on how one views the character dynamics throughout the film.

For my own part, Woman on the Beach seems to function in three parts, though this is somewhat hampered by the lack of the hilariously blunt, Rohmeresque “two days later” title card that precedes Jung-rae and Mun-suk’s second visit to Shindori Beach. Jung-rae is clearly the main character during his dalliance with Sun-hee — it’s a surprise that Kim Seung-woo hasn’t been in another Hong, given how well he nails the writer-director self-absorption that comes to dominate his scenes — but the rest of the film is more free-floating in its perspective.

This ambiguity stems equally from the greater prominence both Mun-suk and Sun-hee are given — the drinking scene that they have alone together is genuinely a breath of fresh air given the films that have come before — and from, it must be said, the title, which may be a Renoir reference though I’m not sure. Initially, it might seem like Mun-suk is another projection, something which is heightened by the vague resemblance Sun-hee has to her and Jung-rae’s infatuation. But little moments of performance from the very beginning, coupled with Chang-wook’s virtual disappearance from the film — amusingly, Kim Tae-woo plays more or less the same role as he did in Woman Is the Future of Man, albeit on a drastically accelerated timescale — set the stage for both her solo drinking scene and the final third.

This is also the first Hong film constructed explicitly along triangles, which almost beg to be analogized. Jung-rae-Mun-suk-Chang-wook has its Hongian repetition in Jung-rae-Sun-hee-Sun-hee’s friend, but it’s murkier between Jung-rae, Mun-suk, and Sun-hee, especially in deciding who departs in the best condition. Likewise, it’s tempting if almost cruel to see Chang-wook and Sun-hee’s friend as the dog Dori, who gets abandoned, though he gets to grow up in a better place/environment, which may well be the case for them as well once extricated from this romantic entanglement.

The triangles themselves get their perfect mirror in the diagram that Jung-rae draws for Mun-suk, one of the greatest and funniest scenes that Hong’s ever done. It oddly comes very close to the drawing that Hong once did for an interview with Sabzian, but where he found “infinite worlds possible,” Jung-rae finds the impossibility of perceiving reality. Obviously, this entire scene is meant as something of parody, in both his convoluted explanations to wave away the true accusations of infidelity and in Mun-suk’s awed reaction, as is also the case with his vaguely Hongian script idea for About Miracles. Indeed, Mun-suk’s observation that Jung-rae’s abrasiveness is “nothing like his films,” in addition to inverting the line from Tale of Cinema, certainly strikes the viewer even without a sense of what his produced films are like. But I still feel like there’s a great deal to be mined from their absurdities, a conflation of the search for connections with the self-absorption of men; that it’s counterbalanced by a growing drive for Hong to evoke his female characters’ inner lives forms much of the engine.

That engine, for better and worse, sometimes gives way to more languid moments; this is Hong’s most dedicated vacation film yet — The Power of Kangwon Province contains numerous stretches in Seoul, and On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate is at least half the journey home — and really also his most structurally/narratively simple — though Jung-rae says he is going to finish his script, that aspect is covered in a laughably short amount of screentime and two handwritten pages. That quality appeals to me especially in the little moments where it does diverge from conversation: the moment where Jung-rae comes across and bows to the three bare trees is echoed in On the Beach at Night Alone and In Another Country, if I’m not mistaken. And the cruel joke Mun-suk plays on Chang-wook by leading him away from them on the beach is hilarious.

The first mention of a character living in Germany, which appears to be an odd obsession of Hong’s even though he hadn’t been featured in Berlin at this moment, comes here as well courtesy of Mun-suk. Hong’s cinema has to this point been very contained to South Korea, but beginning here there’s something of a more cosmopolitan edge that comes to an early head with this film’s follow-up. The distinctly xenophobic views of Jung-rae are certainly extreme, but they plug into the Korean values that are discussed throughout; both Mun-suk and Sun-hee are described as tall, an appellation which feels like a backhanded compliment in context.

While this is Hong’s second longest film to date, this alternates between slackness and a certain tightness, especially when it comes to some of the still-settling editing patterns and the music (which retains the past two films’ variety of cues and use over a few scenes of dialogue). In the first dialogue sequence, there’s essentially a reverse-cut to Chang-wook during Jung-rae’s first conversation, and an insert shot of the cherry blossoms that Mun-suk is admiring before the full long shot. It’s also interesting that there are so many more zoom-ins than zoom-outs here, presumably partially a result of often opening on long landscape shots before zooming-in to the characters, though the static extended shots of nighttime seduction on the beach are marvelous.

While there are only two scenes inside cars, I decided to add on two more scenes to my tally because they have such a strange quality, and demonstrate well both the strengths and minor weaknesses of Woman on the Beach. The first is the motorcycle harassment by the disgruntled waiter, which Sun-hee impressively staves off. On the one hand, it demonstrates what’s a rare and slightly ill-fitting decision to more conventionally resolve the conflicts here; in the span of a single shot Mun-suk has a slight resolution of her relationship with Jung-rae and patches things up with Sun-hee. Though the latter moment is lovely, it feels a little too neat for Hong, especially considering the films preceding and following this. On the other, it helps reveal and complicate more of Sun-hee’s personality, first hinted at in her assertion that she’s as honest as she allows herself to be, a cagy revelation that feels apropos to many of Hong’s female protagonists going forward.

The other is the final scene of Mun-suk’s drive onto the beach, where she gets stuck and is helped out by two men whose own car is mired in the sand. For one, it introduces a unique, almost Bazinian spectacle of watching people actually struggling and succeeding to extricate a car that Hong seldom delves to. For the other, its placement at the end appears to analogize the film in miniature: Mun-suk gets herself trapped in this tricky situation and is extricated by the action of men. But whether it’s true freedom or not is left unresolved; she merely drives down the beach. Whether she gets stuck again while trying to cross the border to get free is left open; what matters is her enjoyment in the moment.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Tale of Cinema

English Title: Tale of Cinema
Korean Title: 극장전/Geukjangjeon/Theater Exhibition
Premiere Date: May 19, 2005
U.S. Release Year: 2021
Festival: Cannes
Film Number: 6
First Viewing Number: 21
First Viewing Date: August 6, 2019
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 9
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 6
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 24
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 9
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 89 minutes (15th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: 35mm
Structure: Two unlabeled parts, film-within-film then reality with large repetition
Recurring Actors: Kim Sang-kyung (second appearance), Park Min-yeong (second appearance), Kim Myeong-su (first appearance), Uhm Ji-won (first appearance), Lee Ki-woo (first appearance)
Season: Winter
Weather: Cloudy, sunny, snowy
Alcohol: Soju, Cass and Hite beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Water, tea
Food: Gukbap, Korean barbecue, sushi
Drinking Scenes: 3
Creative People: Directors, actress
Academia: Film school graduates
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: 1
Film Screening: 1 (outside of theater)
Films Within Films: 1
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 0
Family: Son-mother, brother-brother
Vehicle Scenes: 3
Crying Scenes:
Number of Shots: 82
Number of Zooms: 30 out, 43 in
Music Style: Pensive synth piano and strings; also upbeat xylophone with organ and bells; violins; synthesizers
Title Background: First shot
Voiceover: Throughout first half and at end

More than any other film, Tale of Cinema — one of my favorite early Hongs — is where it feels like Hong finally caught up to the retroactive stereotype of his work. While past films have featured actors and directors, their work was never strictly the center of their relationships; though we don’t get any film festival Q&As, hearing characters finally actually discuss a retrospective and their films is almost startling. This is also the first time that Hong broke from his two-year release pattern, inaugurating a level of productivity almost unheard of in 21st century filmmaking; the first Hong to contain a definitive film-within-the-film; the first Hong with voiceover; and maybe most notably of all, the first Hong to use zooms.

And use them he does: there’s almost as many zooms in the film as there are shots, though it should be noted that this has a marked increase in number of shots from Woman Is the Future of Man after a steady declining trend. This begins in the opening shot, the first appearance of his regular habit of zooming out from a distant landmark to reveal a street, then zooming in to the protagonist, Sang-won in this half of the film; or, slightly less than half; as Young-shil mentions later, it is a short film, and we literally see barely over 39 minutes in the actual film.

Hong uses zooms in an almost liberated manner, consciously playing around with what he can do, in the process discovering certain hallmarks: beginning on a plate of food or sleeping pills before zooming out; zooming in, panning, then zooming out during a tense discussion. There’s one gleefully unorthodox moment in particular when Dong-soo is leaving the hotel and the camera zooms out from the stairs, pans and zooms into a woman wearing a similar shade as Young-shil, then quickly zooms out again as Dong-soo walks into the background. I also totally forgot about the dream sequence with the White woman who speaks perfect Korean and offers Sang-won an apple, one of the most delirious Hong dreams.

I loved the film even more this time — in the past it was the only Hong pre-2008 that I loved on the level of his second-tier work — but I can definitely see how the insistence on the conceit, the highlighting of the parallels between fiction and reality might be a little too on-the-nose; in its own way it’s making a statement as open as Goodbye, Dragon Inn two years earlier. But I had completely forgotten how this swings in a wider emotional arc than any Hong before. It certainly helps that this brings the Hongian crying scene, typically a wail of anguish not far removed from the drunken shouting that appeared plenty before, into greater prominence. But the nature of both parts, involving attempted double suicide in the first part and an unspecified grievous illness in the latter, casts something of a pall over many of the proceedings.

Of course, there’s something deeply absurd, if also sobering, about Dong-soo’s revelation that the film was based on his own personal experience even as he falls into the same cycle, and how he walks conspicuously behind Young-shil during many moments in the second half. In a sense, Kim Sang-kyung has distinguished himself from the other past Hong protagonists in his relative sense of purpose; in the second half of both films he’s starred in, he pursues a woman with renewed resolve, in a manner reflective of the first. But, like On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, the first and second halves don’t fit together: the first half almost represents an idealization, replete with numerous varieties of music cues (if still more restrained/less on-the-nose than most of Woman Is the Future of Man‘s) and a neat family dynamic. While Hong doesn’t abandon his embedded style by any means, it is still as if he streamlined his progression to a point not seen in his films at large until later, compressing the action so as to let the second half unravel the taut narrative. The greater of number of shots does help, but a few editing choices in the second half feel atypical: two cuts within the same scene that advance the time forward a little bit, and an extraordinary match cut of Dong-soo smoking in front of the restaurant to him smoking in front of the hospital.

I’m also reminded in the last part of what Hamaguchi said about the coda of Drive My Car, choosing to make it “imperfect.” Young-shil’s “you didn’t understand the film” kiss-off — which blessedly remains unexplained, free for interpretation — is as choice a line as Hong’s ever had, but his actual place of ending is much more knotty. First, there is an unresolved conclusion with Young-shil like the kind Hong was fond of in his early period; then there is a shockingly anguished scene with Sang-won; then, to close, the first instance of voiceover in the second half, which was so prevalent and even ran over scenes in the first half. While the first half’s use could be attributed to that difference in style between Hong and Sang-won’s sensibilities, the second reaches back into the fictive, to show the remaining union of mindset between Dong-soo and his fictional portrayal. Dong-soo’s quotation that he’s “too fond of drinking” and that “life is too tough” reverberates across both parts, if not Hong in general.

The presentation of the play-within-the-film, which preserves the proscenium and has the amusingly direct title of “The Mother” — we never get a title for Dong-soo’s short — of course links up with the mother-son dynamic that bleeds through his anguish. But it also points to both the return to young adult protagonists, previously only seen in the first half of The Power of Kangwon Province, and the stomach pains and vomiting that recur.

Going back to understanding the film, and with the knowledge that others — including Dennis Lim, whose monograph I’m looking forward to even more than before — may view it differently, I see Young-shil as acting as an even more overt reflection of whatever each man wants to see her as, which of course dovetails with her acting. This is far from the only Hong to make this idea its subject, but it has an even greater charge here, in large part because there’s so much performance coursing throughout this; the two karaoke performances of each song, the really strong work put into deaging(?) the actors — this is the first Hong where all lead actors return at least once — and most tantalizing the possibility that Young-shil’s counterpart didn’t want to die by suicide at all. Instead of confronting the fact that the actress persona and the ex-girlfriend role both don’t map onto Young-shil’s actual being, Sang-won gets trapped in cycles of illness, and Dong-soo retreats into looking at his habits again: he merely thinks about maybe stopping those Marlboro reds which he sees as a mirror instead of a coincidence, that fate that draws Hong’s interest more and more.