Sniffling Out of the Cold: Sundance 2023

Going on about the dispiriting nature of my predicament during this most recent Sundance — technically being able to attend due to my press pass and a robust online platform but losing out on the in-person experience (through both the Press Inclusion Initiative and a visit as part of the USC Gould Entertainment Law Society) that I had planned until literally the day I was supposed to leave — almost would seem to defeat the point of a festival dispatch, but I think some context is in order. In some ways, Sundance was ideal for the at-home viewer who had just suffered a shock at the start of the festival: all the films, and correspondingly most of the buzz, had premiered by the time I was more than half a week into my quarantine, and the presence of almost every film online (save for the notable exception of e.g. Past Lives, the narrative film I was most looking forward to catching up with) could have enabled an even broader viewing schedule than last year, where I was successful in watching all of the films from the NEXT section. But, whether it be the COVID brain fog or an ever-greater disconnect from the festival atmosphere because of the knowledge of all that I was missing, I only caught up with a handful of films in the final weekend of the festival, partly racing, partly strolling against the clock, all from an even more tightly curated selection than before. (I am also obviously writing this long after the end of the festival, so these reviews will unfortunately be much sparser than I had planned.)

The bulk of this viewing came from the resurrected New Frontier section, and I began with Gush, the feature debut of Fox Maxy, whose shorts have rapidly gained recognition over the past few years (which I have not had the pleasure of seeing). Running a slim 71-minute film, it incorporates enough footage to fill several much longer films, drawn from Maxy’s personal archive of a decade of constantly shooting many of her day-to-day interactions. The footage comes fast, often not providing enough to create a context, though several scenes to recur, including a car-bound conversation with two of Maxy’s nieces about a somewhat predatory older man which was apparently filmed two weeks(!) before the festival began.

Coupled with the fast blur of footage is the use of deliberately intrusive animations, especially skeletons shadowboxing, an experimental theater performance that contextualizes some of the more outré images, and specific meta-film devices, including a nifty use of anonymous stock footage with Maxy’s videos playing on the monitor. Though this is the official world premiere of Gush, it has apparently shown before, including at a public work-in-progress screening at the Museum of Modern Art last Halloween, and will continue to be revised in each of its future showings. In this present incarnation and likely all others, there’s a certain shapelessness that the pell-mell, go-for-broke chaos of the haphazard images and editing encourages. This is of course built into the film and remains compelling on a moment-to-moment basis, but the overall experience grows monotonous, and the deliberate placement of the final scene, in which an emcee at a party thanks Maxy for the use of her footage playing on monitors, feels a tad self-satisfied for something ostensibly so communal.

Another selection from New Frontier, Last Things by the section’s most tenured member Deborah Stratman, is the director’s first feature since her landmark The Illinois Parables, and falls into the mid-length category at just 50 minutes. Unlike that film, which from my memory deals with fairly specific instances of folklore, this largely follows intersecting strands centered around the literal evolution of rocks, featuring a heavy use of voiceover by the French filmmaker Valérie Massadian; comparisons have been made with “La jetée” but the science fiction/nature dichotomy made me think much more of the work of Ben Rivers, which has always toed a border between hypnotic and didactic. While the scientific aspect here is more foregrounded, with footage of laboratories, the play between the question of whether the narrated events are the beginning of this world or the next characterizes the pleasingly diffuse nature of the film.

Probably the film’s greatest asset is Stratman’s photography; for whatever reason her 16mm images, which form one of the crucial components of Thom Andersen’s masterpiece Los Angeles Plays Itself, have always held a certain grain density for me that automatically enliven whatever they capture. It’s especially interesting to see the way she films Petra (footage not shot for the project, it should be noted), revivifying the old stomping grounds of Henry Jones, Senior and Junior. I can’t say much else really stuck with me, but I look forward to revisiting this sometime down the line.

Stratman’s film also played with the Filipino short film “It’s Raining Frogs Outside” by Maria Estela Paiso that premiered in Berlin all the way back in 2021; its title provides the literal backdrop. It begins in enormously promising territory, using stop-motion and voiceover to sketch out its main character’s backstory, but then becomes an interesting yet viscerally unappealing (thanks to some icky CGI) story about evolution in a semi-apocalyptic milieu. One animated moment, which features a very upsetting encounter with a cockroach, came up in my memory when I watched the following film that night and made me think that that feature and this short had been paired, a quirk of film festival viewing happenstance.

That film (whose cockroach scene is thankfully much less graphic) was the first I caught up with in my much-less comprehensive survey of the NEXT section: Fremont, the fourth feature by Babak Jalali. I haven’t seen any of his past work, but it sounds like something of a departure, both in its subject matter — a portrait of an Afghan translator who has moved to the Bay Area city — and its aesthetic, which features a frankly gorgeous deployment of Academy digital black-and-white. Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) lives in a housing complex populated by other immigrants from her native country, many of whom regard her suspicion due to her past work with the government. She instead finds some measure of solace in various denizens of the area, including her coworkers at a fortune cookie factory in Chinatown and a psychiatrist, played in a wonderful supporting turn by Gregg Turkington.

In general, there’s a generosity to Jalali’s approach to his characters, almost always keeping things lightly humorous and leaving him free to pursue tangents powered by the more bit characters. Some of these, especially centering around the affable factory owner, are much more effective than others, including a montage of people receiving Donya’s fortune cookie messages that inexplicably includes Boots Riley in a cameo. But this coasts along well, and if the final passage — following Donya as she drives long-distance for a possible date, encountering a mechanic played by Jeremy Allen White along the way — succumbs to some of Jalali’s weaker/laxer narrative and conversational tendencies, the final punchline is appropriately bittersweet.

The best film I saw at Sundance, Passages directed by Ira Sachs, has its own narrative issues, but largely overcomes them thanks to the powerhouse presence of Franz Rogowski, further cementing his place as one of the best actors around. As Tomas, a film director who — despite being married to Martin (Ben Whishaw) — begins having an affair with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), he largely defines the roiling rhythms of a fundamentally classical story, that of a man whose capricious and wandering eye destroys his relationships. At only 91 minutes, its fundamental issue is its length, moving possibly too swiftly between partners even as Rogowski does his best to sell his seesawing, self-involved ardor for one or the other.

Despite his long career, I haven’t seen any of Sachs’s films before, which only makes me more inclined to see this as a banner entry in the Saïd Ben Saïd catalogue, whose résumé as producer (Verhoeven, Lapid, Garrel, Mendonça Filho etc.) forms one of the most essential auteurist studies of the past decade. Aside from the forthrightly Parisian setting, which makes the presence of both the German Rogowski and the English Whishaw amusingly incongruous, Passages fits in well with the peculiar recurrence of quietly domineering protagonists, people whose force of personality comes out more in pointed barbs than in raised voices. The sensuality and heartbreak emitted helps carry this through the awkward narrative structure, as do a number of quite erotic sex scenes (though Sachs’s disinterest in Exarchopoulos could scarcely be more palpable).

The third and last film in New Frontier was A Common Sequence, co-directed by Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibisser in their feature debuts; I had seen the former’s short “Figure Minus Fact” but otherwise wasn’t familiar with either’s work. This takes something of a loose triptych structure, all examining the intersection of nature, work, and science: the regenerative potential of the achoque salamander in Pátzcuaro, Mexico; the use of mechanized apple pickers in the Yakima Valley in Washington, the study of DNA in South Dakota. In large part, this adopts a fairly traditional verite documentary form for better or worse, plenty of handheld observation with some interviews laid in via voiceover, but the transitions between parts can be fascinating: in particular, a Mexican worker’s mention of his friend trying to find work in America, specifically Washington, triggers the leap to the apple orchards a few scenes later.

But every so often, A Common Sequence will throw in a wildly abstract image, especially of machines and interfaces, that considerably enlivens the circumstances. The first and last significant shots arguably make the film an overall success all by themselves: they both capture a group of Mexican fisherman in distinct ways. In the first, they are coming back to a lake’s shores in darkness, illuminating the frame with only their headlamps, as snatches of conversations and dogs barking are heard. The latter features the opposite motion, and as the shot stretches out, the slow fade to night and the emergence is stars is so odd on camera that I genuinely thought the background might be computer generated or even some kind of faux-matte painting; I can’t tell if it was just my state of mind at that particular moment, but it was perhaps the single most compelling thing I saw “at” Sundance.

My final film at the festival was in the NEXT section, and a film I prioritized specifically because of positive notices: The Tuba Thieves, the debut feature by Deaf filmmaker Alison O’Daniel. It is difficult to describe the film, other than to point out its structure of stories loosely related by the preeminence of sound: a group of people affected by the theft of tubas from Los Angeles high schools from 2011-13, people living in neighborhood under the roar of jumbo jets flying in and out of LAX, the first performance of “4’33”,” the last performance at the Deaf Club in San Francisco presided over by Bruce Baillie, and so on and so forth.

The highlight is, by design, the open captions, which are exceedingly delightful in their wit: providing humorous descriptions of even the most routine sounds, giving actual decibel measurements, stretching out words as they get longer and longer, and so on and so forth. Indeed, I feel a bit churlish for liking this less than I wish I did; O’Daniel provides a great deal of invention from scene to scene, and I’m not usually one to fault a film for its narrative incoherency. But there’s too much packed into here, and the ending in particular feels like an especially arbitrary note, a return to an already extraneous storyline that sheds little further light. That summed up my abbreviated Sundance in a nutshell: all the films I saw were good and interesting, but none felt free from compromise.

December 2022 Capsules

Yi Yi [rewatch]
This has never not been among the heights of cinema for me, but something that always puzzled me before this viewing was the focus on the father, sister, and brother, with the mother whisked unceremoniously away for most of the film. But apart from the absence it creates, the room allowed for all members of the family to flirt with the unknown (even the mother, trying out overt spirituality), it also removes the closest familial connection to the grandmother. Everyone else is at a slight remove from the old, comatose woman they express their thoughts to, whether by blood or by a generation gap; even the uncle has to overcome the grandmother’s apprehensiveness. If Yi Yi is the most incisive of films about family, it’s also crucial that the family is forced into unconventional circumstances for so long, that the final reunion is as bittersweet as possible, with chances for new life lost and the passing of a loved one. But they are together in the end, still fundamentally themselves, and that’s what matters.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: The Woman Who Ran

English Title: The Woman Who Ran
Korean Title: 도망친 여자/Domangchin yeoja/A Woman Who Ran Away
Premiere Date: February 25, 2020
U.S. Release Year: 2021
Festival: Berlin (Best Director)
Film Number: 24
First Viewing Number: 24
First Viewing Date: October 5, 2020
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 10
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 27
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 27
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 10
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 77 minutes (23rd longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Three equal parts, different screen partners
Recurring Actors: Seo Young-hwa (eighth appearance), Kim Min-hee (seventh appearance), Kwon Hae-hyo (sixth appearance), Song Seon-mi (fifth appearance), Kim Sae-byuk (third appearance), Shin Seok-ho (third appearance), Lee Eun-mi (first appearance), Ha Seong-guk (first appearance)
Season: Autumn
Weather: Sunny, rainy
Alcohol: Makgeolli, white wine
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Water, coffee
Food: Apples, grilled meat, pasta, bread, grapes
Drinking Scenes: 3
Creative People: Dance producer, film programmer, architect, poet/writer
Academia: History teacher
Vacation: 1-3
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: 1
Films Within Films: 1-2
Q&A: N/A
Naps: N/A
Family: Wife-husband
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: N/A
Number of Shots: 28
Number of Zooms: 17 out, 24 in
Music Style: Tinny synth piano and strings, strummed guitar
Title Background: First shot (no logo)
Voiceover: N/A

It really was a shock to us Hongians when Hong didn’t release a film in 2019. Despite Filipe Furtado’s delightful assertion that Martín Rejtman made sure that a year didn’t pass without a new Hong film with his amazing short “Shakti,” owing to health issues, Hong took the year off, making it the first year without a Hong since 2007, just barely missing making a film in every year of the 2010s. But it’s somewhat fitting that Hong returned with a film as seemingly unassuming yet beautiful as The Woman Who Ran. It’s maybe the first one (with the possible exception of Yourself and Yours), at least since I started receiving his films as they premiered, that the reception of nearly everyone on first viewing was of a more general appreciation, before growing in many people’s minds to become a major work. Hong’s films always linger in the mind, but this one strikes even more of a pensive mood.

Much of this comes from the renewed focus on Kim; despite the very sensible tendency of calling late Hong films as Kim-led films, this is really the first film since On the Beach at Night Alone that’s solely led by Kim, whereas the others since have had her explicitly as an observer or as a co-lead with someone else, either a man or Huppert. She is our guide once again, moving through, as Sean and Evan’s correspondence (probably their best) put it, three different pathways through middle age. While not as specifically death-obsessed as either of the past two films, and once again returning to color (mostly), there is a general sense of stasis here, comfortable experiences and/or relationships that Gam-hee comes close to disrupting while never quite piercing the veil.

One of the things most noted about The Woman Who Ran is the near-idyllic nature of its female-dominated storylines, with the inclusion of men as deliberate, unwelcome intrusions. This is certainly true throughout, but I found myself unexpectedly moved by a specific component. While Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa) and Su-young (Song Seon-mi) are played by two of Hong and Kim’s most prolific and notable collaborators, both essentially co-leading their sections in On the Beach at Night Alone and Hotel by the River, Woo-jin is played by Kim Sae-byuk, who played Chang-sook, the mistress in The Day After, and Ji-young in Grass (aka the woman who ran up the stairs).

In narrative terms, she embodies a similar role as in the former film: she has essentially replaced Kim’s character in a relationship with Kwon Hae-hyo’s character Jung. But the tonal register is entirely different: I had remembered the initial encounter as being mildly hostile, instead of the genuine and awkward curiosity that both women have upon seeing each other again. It’s almost like a mea culpa, or a reconciliation made impossible in that earlier film, and the metatextual nature of this scene, and its breezy dismissals of Jung, made me genuinely emotional.

While it’s true that this third section breaks from the neat, planned visits to old friends’ living spaces, the structure as a whole contained more variances than I remembered: there are brief conversations that the other women have before Gam-hee arrives in the first and third section (in addition to apples) while Su-young is alone; the two days-one night structure of the first section is met by two neatly bisected conversations in the other two parts. And an extraordinary linking gesture that I hadn’t noticed at all before that aren’t the mountain zooms: Gam-hee stirs a drink in her first conversation in each part, although it’s coffee with a spoon in the second two parts and makgeolli with a chopstick in the first part.

I had also forgotten that, while the men are predominately shot from the back — a neat little reversal of the conversation immediately preceding the first confrontation about the mean rooster who pecks out the feathers of the hens to prove his dominance — their faces are clearly visible, especially in the second and third. Furthermore, there’s something considerably more ambiguous about the second one than I had remembered, and the shot of Gam-hee exiting the second part bears more than a passing resemblance to the shot of Ha Seong-guk — in his first of now many Hong appearances — sadly walking away. This also happens in the shot of Gam-hee looking at the security footage; the first time she does it, it feels like it’s emphasizing the distance between her and the comforting taking place on the screen, but this time it’s closer to the role she had in the early stages of Grass; the door lock in the former reminds me of the one in The Day He Arrives.

Speaking of Grass, this likely forms a recurring role for Seo, though they aren’t named the same. In that film, Seo’s character Sung-hwa explained that she couldn’t take in Chang-soo because she was living in the country with a roommate, a situation that’s a perfect match for her living style in the first part. This is also the first Hong that more-or-less explicitly has a queer couple, who will delightfully turn up again in In Front of Your Face: I had forgotten that Young-jin (Lee Eun-mi) is the one who fields most of Shin Seok-ho’s questions during the robber cats scene, and in general I love how content she is to remain in the background. In the last shot of the first part, it is the friends Gam-hee and Young-soon who have their arms around each other, while Young-jin, respectful of the shared history her partner and her partner’s friend have had, follows along behind.

The robber cats scene really is one of Hong’s greatest scenes and shots, the cat perfectly posing as a button on the scene, and it’s made all the more richer by the conversation that Gam-hee and Young-soon have earlier about cow eyes and consciousness. They remark on the great beauty of cows’ eyes, and the latter discusses briefly the separation between the consciousness of the mind, which can interact easily with cows and other animals, and the instinct of the body, a dialectic that neatly sums up the indecision of many Hong protagonists. In this light, the confrontation boils down not to neighbor etiquette, but to the very nature of how animals should be considered: as a being that should be nurtured like a human or not. The intelligence of the pose offers Hong’s answer.

It really is striking how little the viewer learns about Gam-hee as a character, aside from her husband’s history teaching position and the fact that they haven’t spent a day apart in five years. But while I think it’s too much to suggest that she must be in an unhappy marriage, her musings that she goes out less because she doesn’t want to say things she doesn’t need to see or do things she doesn’t want to do feels like it cuts both ways. The way of the Hongian protagonist is to get into precisely those interactions, even in his more sedate films, and this film very much functions as a breaking of that shell for Gam-hee, an exposure to mysteries like the third floor. Of course, there’s no indication that these are specifically sequential encounters, whether these might be dreams/repetitions or taking place weeks or years apart, but the flow is so smooth that I’m inclined to see them as taking place in a “real” diegesis.

The film screening(s) is one of Hong’s most openly cinephilic gestures in a long while, probably not met since Right Now, Wrong Then. (The other audience member in the first screening is Darcy Paquet, probably the preeminent Korean-to-English subtitle translator, who did Parasite among many others.) For one, it might actually be the first time he’s actually showed a film projected on screen unless I’m misremembering; every other Hong film-within-the-film has either been presented as “real” or played off-screen in the theater with only the sound as proof that something is being shown. The serenity of the image in both black-and-white and color, along with it potentially playing the same image at both the beginning and end, almost suggests a slow cinema film.

Of course, the switch from the first to the second, precipitated by her conversations with Woo-jin and Jung — her assertion that he repeats himself over and over, which makes his comments insincere, and his claim that the stress of quitting smoking is worse than the cigarettes themselves, offer plenty to ponder over — suggests an opening of her perception, an ability to finally see live not in monochrome but in living color. But this time I decided not to see the film as communicating such a clear arc, but instead as these miniature portraits, dances of common understanding among women that evoke so much about a change to a living style set in its ways. In that light, it’s as major as they come.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Hotel by the River

English Title: Hotel by the River
Korean Title: 강변 호텔/Gangbyun Hotel
Premiere Date: August 9, 2018
U.S. Release Year: 2019
Festival: Locarno (Best Actor)
Film Number: 23
First Viewing Number: 15
First Viewing Date: November 13, 2018
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 22
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 26
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 18
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 23
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 96 minutes (11th longest)
Color/Black & White: Black & White
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Linear with parallel protagonists
Recurring Actors: Gi Ju-bong (ninth appearance), Yoo Joon-sang (ninth appearance), Kim Min-hee (sixth appearance), Kwon Hae-hyo (fifth appearance), Song Seon-mi (fourth appearance), Shin Seok-ho (second appearance)
Season: Winter
Weather: Snowy, sunny
Alcohol: Soju, makgeolli, white wine
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Tom N Toms Coffee, water
Food: Tofu soup, cake, cheese, red bean soup
Drinking Scenes: 2
Creative People: Poets, film director
Academia: N/A
Vacation: 2
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: 1
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 6
Family: Father-sons
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: 3
Number of Shots: 58
Number of Zooms: 23 out, 14 in
Music Style: Dramatic synth piano and strings
Title Background: White background drawn with spoken credits/Black background for closing credits
Voiceover: 2

Maybe this is the case with most directors with a small but strong following, but I tend to feel that the most popular and/or “conventional” Hongs tend to pose a challenge to the most die-hard of Hong acolytes. Whether it be the more straightforward bifurcation of Right Now, Wrong Then or the extranational star presence of the Hupperts, the noted uptick in relative reception can put up something of a smokescreen for his more particular idiosyncrasies. No film demonstrates that better than Hotel by the River, which still resolutely remains one of his lesser films for me, especially compared to Grass, albeit one that still retains something quite moving and unclassifiable within its more discernible narrative.

Before talking about that, however, I have to touch on the handheld cinematography, which remains totally inexplicable to me. Hong’s opening voiceover — which reminds me of Welles, and remains the only time he’s technically been in his own films, even if my friends and I are convinced that he’d be marvelous as an actor (or in cameos) — takes the unusual step of mentioning the shooting period of January 29 to February 14, 2018, which, given his ordinarily short shooting schedule, suggests this wasn’t a decision borne of a time-crunch. I initially thought on this rewatch that there might be a shift to static cameras for the final scenes, but it appears to remain handheld for every single shot. If I had to venture an interpretation, it’d point to the frailty shared between the protagonists, but that’s a bit of a stretch. I got used to it after a while, and it doesn’t strictly detract from my appreciation of the film, but it’s still a seemingly arbitrary choice/experiment, especially given his swift return to tripods.

After eight supporting performances, Gi Ju-bong finally gets to lead a Hong film, and he truly is wonderful. Even though he was only in his early 60s at the time this was made, he still brings a palpably more wearied presence only really suggested before by Moon Sung-keun, though of course he only led part of Oki’s Movie. While he technically shares leading status with Kim Min-hee, once again playing a character named Ah-reum — it’s quite neat that this three-film black-and-white run forms something of a loose trilogy of films where Kim/Ah-reum is a co-lead — it is his narrative that defines the film, while Kim embodies something more ethereal and abstract, appropriately caught in stasis.

Hotel by the River feels even more stripped down than The Day After, if only because the character relationships ultimately become far simpler: there are the father and his two sons, and the two friends, with only a hotel worker to occupy another speaking part. Like in Grass, there’s an off-screen owner of the principal setting — who has an unidentified dispute with Young-hwan — and a sojourn to a restaurant, but that was comparatively filled with characters and incidents. The hotel isn’t shown quite enough to make it feel truly deserted, but the fall of snow, even more sudden than the aftermath shown in Oki’s Movie, makes it feel beautifully desolate, these interactions playing against essentially a blank canvas, the impersonality of the Hotel Heimat (German for home, of course, in a film where you can’t go home again) letting the fairly set relationships play out. It’s certainly no coincidence how many naps there are; even Kyung-soo gets one while he’s waiting for Byung-soo to find their father.

Hotel by the River really strikes me most in how deeply it takes family as its central focus, to an even greater degree than Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, which refracted its portrait of a daughter through her relationships with others. Ah-reum’s plot with Yeon-joo — Song Seon-mi as Kim’s main screen partner once again — acts in some ways as a more stable Hongian mirror, a slow reckoning with a break-up that helps inform much of Young-hwan’s mindset through much of the film; it’s certainly significant that the film opens with him seeing Ah-reum outside, a moment of contemplation that sets the stage for the film to come. The two real interactions the two protagonists have, with the second putting into full bloom the sheepish inspiration he had received from the sight of these two women, almost act as interludes in the otherwise very causal film: Ah-reum and Yeon-joo take the first of many naps, then the next shot is of them walking in the snow; the shot of Kyung-soo and Byung-soo leaving the restaurant holds for a while before Young-hwan reenters to read his poem.

I had also forgotten that the poem featured those cutaways to a visual representation of his words, with a purposefully out-of-focus Shin Seok-ho working at an old gas station. Indeed, this is maybe the first Hong that uses what might properly be called montages; under the first two scenes when Young-hwan is talking to his sons, there are a few shots that appear to be flashbacks to various times during the past few weeks of his stay, including some priceless ones where he plays with dogs and giddily chops a piece of wood with an axe. These moments are downright conventional, but in Hong’s hands and especially with his particular dialogue, perched between conversational and poetic, it plays considerably differently, even if it actively breaks away from the “realism” otherwise present.

Hotel by the River remains incredibly difficult to talk about, if largely because its strengths seem specific to it and less tightly rooted in Hong’s body of work as a whole. Of course, there’s no shortage of linkages: the priceless line from Yeon-joo that Byung-soo is “hardly a real auteur” (given the heavy focus on his father and brother’s artistry, the lack of mention of Kyung-soo’s profession is noteworthy), the additional link between the two parties of Yeon-joo’s wrecked car mysteriously ending up in the brothers’ hands; the purposeful elision of how Ah-reum’s hand was burned; the frequent talk about autographs/celebrity and the digressive nature of the brothers’ initial conversation about the river. And the mere sight of seeing Yoo Joon-sang and Kwon Hae-hyo playing brothers is a delight, especially since their last shared screentime was as middle school friends; Yoo’s longer hair weirdly makes him look a lot different, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he switched to a vape in real life, necessitating his character to smoke the same. I’m also very fond of the scene where Kyung-soo and Byung-soo are given stuffed animals and the latter has to force himself to smile; it also leads into the handily philosophical sequence explaining the meaning of their names (in Chinese characters!), which is punctured by the typically Hongian response from Kyung-soo that his name has much less meaning than his brother’s.

It is in that balance that Hong finds his work and Hotel by the River, that need to learn how to be human while also belonging to heaven (echoing Ah-reum’s belief in The Day After); it’s not simply a film about letting go, but also about balancing that with the observation of those around the central doomed person. It was probably inevitable sooner or later that Hong would have a character definitely die on-screen, though of course there have been characters who died in dream sequences or who vanished from the film, but I think the finality of that scene is both effective, especially in the long shot of the door as Kyung-soo and Byung-soo’s voices come from off screen, and made more mysterious by that dissolve to Ah-reum and Yeon-ju crying in bed together. The link between these disparate strands is made both more apparent and more opaque in this moment, a final complication that prevents this from simply being an open-and-shut Hong unlike his other work, even in the late period. Even though my heart doesn’t tremble for this one as much as the films surrounding it, it trembles nevertheless, precious and delicate in its own way.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Grass

English Title: Grass
Korean Title: 풀잎들/Pul-ip-deul/Blades of Grass
Premiere Date: February 16, 2018
U.S. Release Year: 2019
Festival: Berlin (Forum)
Film Number: 22
First Viewing Number: 20
First Viewing Date: April 24, 2019
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 4
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 25
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 23
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 4
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 66 minutes (25th longest)
Color/Black & White: Black & White
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Linear day, moderate repetition
Recurring Actors: Gi Ju-bong (eighth appearance), Seo Young-hwa (seventh appearance), Kim Min-hee (fifth appearance), Ahn Jae-hong (fourth appearance), Han Jai (fourth appearance), Kang Ta-eu (fourth appearance), Gong Min-jeong (third appearance), Jung Jin-young (second appearance), Kim Sae-byuk (second appearance), Kim Myeong-su (second appearance), Lee Yoo-young (second appearance), Shin Seok-ho (first appearance)
Season: Autumn
Weather: Sunny
Alcohol: Soju
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee (iced), water
Food: Tuna, fish soup, grilled meat
Drinking Scenes: 2
Creative People: Theater actors, screenwriters, TV actor
Academia: Professors
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A?
Q&A: N/A
Naps: N/A
Family: Sister-brother
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: 3
Number of Shots: 26
Number of Zooms: 18 out, 25 in
Music Style: Impromptus Opp.90 (Schubert), Lohengrin (Wagner), Tannhäuser Overture (Wagner)
Title Background: White paper, printed/Black background for closing credits (three figures and ball in Jeonwonsa logo), Orpheus in the Underworld (Offenbach), Canon (Pachelbel), muted synth strings, Oh! Susanna recorder and xylophone and harmonica version, Korean singer with guitar
Voiceover: 1 (reading text)

Potentially Hong’s most Rivettian and overlooked film, Grass would seem to embody what would be minor in any other director’s universe. Running just 66 minutes, it premiered in the Berlinale Forum, the sidebar organized by Arsenal typically reserved for boundary-pushing work even though On the Beach at Night Alone won a prize in competition the previous year, and generally was ignored by most non-Hong acolytes, who generally tended towards its successor. But ever since I first saw it, Grass has consistently felt among Hong’s most fascinating and moving works; it is certainly true that a minor Hong is major, but its magnificent complexity seems to openly defy such simple categorizations.

For one, Grass splits open the question of the Hong lead even more openly than The Day He Arrives did. The logical idea is to label this a Kim Min-hee film: she’s explicitly put front and center as the observer; she has voiceover narration of what might be her descriptions of the events in front of her, what might be her script and/or diary, what might even all be her imagination. The film in many ways feels like it’s building up to her final decision to actively engage with those she’s been eavesdropping on; her name is even Ah-reum, her heroine’s name in The Day After. But her narrative is only really centered in a few scenes: her interaction with Kyung-soo — Jung Jin-young, Wan-soo from Claire’s Camera, in a pivotal role here — and the extended scenes with her brother Jin-ho (Shin Seok-ho, the future lead of Introduction in his first Hong film).

Instead, Ah-reum functions almost akin to Anton Walbrook’s master of ceremonies in La Ronde, whose presence links and shapes the viewer’s understanding of the narratives that we see beyond simply their shared space. Probably Hong’s most stripped down feature yet, using only 26 shots in the whole film (one more than the number of zoom-ins alone), the structure initially seems to be clear: two people have a conversation in the café — the man sits on the right and has an iced coffee, the woman sits on the left and has a hot coffee — that involves a mention of suicide and a tense relationship, which first happens between Hong-soo (Ahn Jae-hong, in probably his biggest Hong role) and Mi-na — Gong Min-jeong, the eyepatch wearer in Yourself and Yours and Sang-won’s companion in On the Beach at Night Alone — then Chang-soo (Gi Ju-bong, finally sporting a beard) and Sung-hwa (Seo Young-hwa). But that gets interrupted immediately after, shifting first outside for a more light-hearted conversation between Kyung-soo and Ji-young (Kim Sae-byuk, Chang-sook in The Day After), then Kyung-soo directly interacting with Ah-reum, then the trio of scenes that leave the café and decamp for a restaurant.

This is one of the crucial paradoxes of Grass: on the one hand, it could be perceived as one of Hong’s simplest narratives, a single day moving from day to night. But on the other, its structure warps, constantly changing the viewer’s preconceptions of what it’s supposed to be, and making the passage of time as hazy as The Day He Arrives. It is almost like a Hong film that was composed of his past characters but stripped of the context to their conversations, leaving only these spaces of play and chance that shift with each line of dialogue in much the same way as Rivette’s narratives operated. It’s easy to glean pretty early on how much it invokes death and uses it as a recurring theme, but character relationships become and stay fairly uncertain past that point: Hong-soo and Mi-na declare their love for each other (and the latter’s Europe trip is just for show) after having a rancorous discussion early on, Kyung-soo and Ji-young have either an intense friendship or an affair, the relationship of Sung-hwa is much quieter and less evident than the actors and writer she’s surrounded by (the way she looks on during Kyung-soo and Chang-soo’s discussion is amazing).

Even, and especially, Ah-reum is not immune to this. If I was being excessively contrarian, I’d call this Kim’s best performance, if only because it so radically diverges from the nigh-angelic image in Hong’s other films. It initially begins like that, with her quietly sitting in the corner and her hushed voiceover calmly assessing the difficulties present in the two conversations. But once she leaves to eat with her brother and his girlfriend Yeon-ju (Han Jai, another recurring background Hong face), her entire demeanor seems to shift. It’s certainly true that Kyung-soo’s proposal to use her as inspiration doesn’t come across nearly as well as he was probably thinking — it’s left deliberately unclear whether he’s actually attempting to ask her out, though in general he plays a nicer version of the depressive Wan-soo — but Ah-reum generally has the same sort of reticence she had in The Day After in this first section.

Aside from the opening scene of Tale of Cinema, I don’t think Hong has ever really focused on siblings, but it’s truly remarkable seeing how much Kim changes her style to accommodate the bossy older sister role, mercilessly mocking her younger brother’s naiveté and disdaining love as creating burdens for others. After a brief détente created by Yeon-ju replying that all men are cowards (except Jin-ho), Ah-reum first gets in an argument with her brother, walks towards then away from someone singing with a guitar, then returns to the café. Her voiceover then takes on a wholly different tone, first scorning the repaired relationship between Hong-soo and Mi-na, then mournfully wondering if she can have some of the smuggled soju, if she’ll ever have the same kind of connection that Kyung-soo and Ji-young have — “People are emotions. Emotions are gullible and forceful, precious, cheap, and alluring.”

That Ah-reum does get to finally have that sip of soju fits in well with Hong’s renewed focus on finding common ground between his major characters in this late period, but it also heightens the murkiness between observation and imagination, documenting and narrativizing. It’s entirely unclear whether the first two conversations really were as complicated and fruitless as Ah-reum perceived and/or wrote them; while participants of both conversations are seen in the same frame as Kyung-soo, there’s no real interaction between them until after she assumes her “real”/”unreal” persona, and of course the fact that all of them stay at the café for what seems like eight hours is its own air of unreality. Maybe the shot of Jin-ho and Yeon-ju walking together, one of the few scenes that doesn’t involve Ah-reum in any way, helps shed light: it’s in a kinder register, the brother ruefully noting his family’s difficult side (amusingly attributing the dispute to “spinster’s hysteria”) before the couple decide to get a drink. The bookend of them renting hanboks and taking each other’s pictures as first Hong-soo, then Kyung-soo look on — the significance of Ah-reum taking Kyung-soo’s place at the table as he’s left outside, like he was at the beginning of the film, is definitely worth noting, as are the three stills of the empty café and alley after the final scene — effectively assuming their place within the narrative near the café that they had been excluded from before, is one of Hong’s great unexpected delights.

The other two scenes in Grass that pass by without Ah-reum’s direct comment are two of Hong’s most mysterious and emotional, in vastly different tenors, and which both take place in the restaurant. The first is perhaps Hong’s most unusually shot table scene since he stopped cutting within scenes: the camera is of Jae-myung’s back — played by Kim Myung-su, who was the stepfather in the first half of Tale of Cinema — on the left and Soon-young — Lee Yoo-young, Min-jeong from Yourself and Yours — on the right. Even as the conversation becomes more and more tense, with the suicide of the former’s close friend and the latter’s lover/possible student brought up more and more, the vantage point, aside from a zoom-in, never shifts, leaving almost all of the scene to play out on Soon-young’s stricken face — Lee looks a lot different than in Yourself and Yours, with bangs and darker hair that, coupled with the black-and-white, make her emotions much more stark than her endlessly mutable past character.

If that wasn’t enough, the heavy use of beautiful classical music in the café, which almost drowns out the conversation and suggests a much different undercurrent of emotion from the mundane conversations, is supplanted here by, of all things, what sounds like a recorder, xylophone, and harmonica cover of the minstrel song “Oh! Susanna.” I don’t know what possibly possessed Hong to do this, but it’s an unexpectedly sour but fitting joke to overlay this scene. And of course, there is that startling pan left to the shadow cast by Jae-myung, which simultaneously seems to stand in for both the presence of every single Hongian man blaming the problems of himself and his friends on women, and for all the dead people who have left behind these lonely souls. It is a totally spectral image, recasting everything around it.

If that scene, which even leaves Ah-reum and Jin-ho in uncomfortable silence, is one of Hong’s bleakest, the very next one is one of his most effervescent. As Ji-young waits for her appointment that seemingly never comes to pass, she goes downstairs to see if the person is outside, then walks upstairs to see if her phone has gone off, then repeats this exercise a few more times. Then, she takes her eyes off of these things, simply delighting in the pleasure of the activity, going faster and faster as her smile grows and grows. This arc, embodying emotions through motion and performance, in many ways acts as a synecdoche for every single character’s journey through this film, where practically everyone comes to terms with their circumstances and finds joy within it, even in the face of the death of one’s self or one’s loved one. That it is assigned to the character with the least amount of problems (she even has a new boyfriend) only speaks to the ease with which Hong works, trusting a seemingly minor character to suddenly embody everyone’s worries and their means of lessening it.

The Korean title of Grass translates to Blades of Grass, recalling Walt Whitman, and while the potted plants outside didn’t factor in as much as I remembered, they still have something of a calming force: people don’t speak while they look at the leaves, instead simply smoking and contemplating, whether accompanied by Ah-reum’s voiceover or not. But nobody stays in this means of stasis for very long; they are met by a friend — the friendship between the four fellow drinkers isn’t revealed until Ji-young approaches Chang-soo — or are pulled back inside, ready once again to face the uncertainty of relationships and be reconciled. Though the owner is often described, he is never seen on screen; I like to think that it’s Hong, watching over his beloved actors and spaces in much the same way as his partner does in the film, revealed with a simple pan and zoom.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: The Day After

English Title: The Day After
Korean Title: 그 후/Geu-hu/After That
Premiere Date: May 22, 2017
U.S. Release Year: 2018
Festival: Cannes
Film Number: 21
First Viewing Number: 9
First Viewing Date: June 11, 2017
Viewing Number: 4
Ranking (at beginning of run): 13
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 24
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 9
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 13
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 92 minutes (12th longest)
Color/Black & White: Black & White
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Parallel linear narratives with coda
Recurring Actors: Gi Ju-bong (seventh appearance), Kim Min-hee (fourth appearance), Kwon Hae-hyo (fourth appearance), Kang Ta-eu (third appearance), Park Ye-ju (second appearance), Kim Sae-byuk (first appearance), Jo Yun-hui (first appearance)
Season: Winter (January)
Weather: Snowy, sunny
Alcohol: Soju, beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, water
Food: Chinese black bean noodles, pork neck stew, bean sprout soup, rice, seaweed, KFC, cheese stick, grilled meat, tuna
Drinking Scenes: 4
Creative People: Literature publisher, critic, writer
Academia: N/A
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 1
Family: Husband-wife
Vehicle Scenes: 3
Crying Scenes: 3
Number of Shots: 43
Number of Zooms: 17 out, 28 in
Music Style: Muffled mournful synth strings
Title Background: First shot/Black background for closing credits (ball on left side in Jeonwonsa logo)
Voiceover: 3 (two text only)

Since I didn’t begin watching Hong until the end of 2016, 2017 was really the first year I was eagerly anticipating his work, which happened to coincide with the annus mirabillis that saw Hong releasing three films, one at Berlin and two at Cannes, and Hong getting two films into the NYFF main slate for the first time (it was probably too much to hope for all three). When I first saw the fairly muted reception that The Day After got, I thought for sure that On the Beach at Night Alone would be the one that everyone preferred, what with the focus on Kim and its direct connection to Hong’s personal life. But then a strange thing happened: upon its release, The Day After became something of a consensus pick of being one of Hong’s greatest works, certainly among the films from the last five or six years. When I first saw it, on a screener with Evan the same day as Claire’s Camera, we both didn’t warm to it to an enormous degree; now, if I still agree with Evan and Sean that On the Beach at Night Alone is the superior film, it’s only by a slim margin. Especially keeping in mind Sean’s formulation where The Day After is the beginning of Hong’s ongoing late period, it has only gotten more potent and complex for me.

Part of the unique conundrum that The Day After presents, even more than something like Woman on the Beach, is whether one sees this as a Kwon Hae-hyo film, as was basically advertised in both pre-release press, poster, and logline, or as a Kim Min-hee film. Of course, as often is the case with Hong, the answer is both, but I get the sense that for a lot of people, the entire film is that one shot with Kim, one of Hong’s most beautiful, as she looks out of the taxi window at the falling snow. I don’t think any of Hong’s films are that reducible, especially this one, and not just because the film mostly takes place from Bong-wan’s perspective, though I’m not inclined to agree with Ah-reum’s assertion that she’s not a leading character. (When Evan and I watched it, we both felt it was his least funny since the early Hongs, which might be true though I now find it much funnier.)

In many ways, The Day After represents the beginning of Hong’s full hybridization of this early and middle periods that in some ways typifies late Hong. From the former, he takes the generally more downbeat tone, moral examinations, and small, character interaction-first approach pared down to the bone; from the latter, he retains his keen sense for comedy and conversational rhythm, with some other new twists added in for good measure. What struck me this time about The Day After was its relatively clear and clean narrative arcs, in some ways hearkening back to the Moral Tale set-up of Night and Day with respect to Bong-wan’s character. But while an early Hong would have shown this truly dramatic turning point of him choosing to live for his daughter rather than to continue his affair with Chang-sook, it’s deliberately elided here; this is, after all, a 92-minute Hong sensibility at play.

I had remembered the general overall structural gambit that Hong pulls here, including the still magnificently destabilizing sight of Ah-reum and Chang-sook in the same shot for the first time, but I forgot exactly how it unfolds. During Bong-wan’s long journey to work — the shot of him entering the hazily lit subway tunnel is nearly as astonishing to me as the car shot, which also happens to be the first time he’s shot the inside of a car, a common sight in his early films, since the inaugural middle Hong “Lost in the Mountains” — the rhythm is stop-start, first showing a scene of him alone moving across a space before cutting to a scene with him and Chang-sook sometime in the past; it’s unclear whether these scenes are presented chronologically or not, and how long ago they took place. But once Bong-wan meets Ah-reum, it’s presented much more fluidly, with Bong-wan suggesting to Chang-sook to get lunch together followed by him and Ah-reum walking to the restaurant. There’s even a shot which seems to directly reference and riff off of the two shots of Kim exiting a restroom in On the Beach at Night Alone: the sound of washing hands is heard behind a door, only for Chang-sook to exit instead.

I had also forgotten the other flashback, which takes place after Ah-reum is dismissed by Bong-wan: a return to earlier in the day, when Ah-reum is getting the ropes at work. Bong-wan compliments her on her pretty hands, and mentions that she’s free to take any of the books that his publishing house has released. In narrative terms, it provides an off-hand explanation for why Ah-reum decides to take a whole bag-load on her way out. But in emotional and structural terms, it provides something different: an almost utopic (in this context) image of friendly and productive work — Ah-reum is editing something about “a rare art that utilizes concrete human forms to reveal the phenomenal disposition and attitudes of humans,” which is as good a description of cinema as any — that could have blossomed if not for this avalanche of mistaken assumptions and unfortunate events.

Maybe it’s just willful blindness on my part, but like Chun-su in Right Now, Wrong Then, I’m actually really inclined to take most of what Bong-wan says to Ah-reum in both of their restaurant scenes at face value, that he genuinely believes in her intellect and capacity to be a valuable assistant at the publishing house. In many ways, this reading of The Day After complicates it considerably more than merely another case of a Hongian man too wrapped up in his desire for women to truly recognize their capabilities, and places it into something a more tragic but also more transformative realm. It’s entirely possible, of course, that Bong-wan intended to seduce Ah-reum as well, but maybe it’s something about Kim’s presence that seems to forestall that possibility in my mind.

As is made clear by Cinema Guild’s poster for the film, probably my all-time favorite poster, The Day After is easily the most stripped down Hong feature yet, only really having four characters of any note, and a good deal of the pleasure is seeing that repeated set-up in front of the classical music, Bach and Brahms looking upon these webs of deception that forces Ah-reum into contrasting positions: first the wide-eyed new employee, then the wrongfully accused and slapped woman (it’s amazing to see how Ah-reum’s hair clip falls during the beating, and how she repeatedly pushes Hae-joo into the couch), then the rightful accuser calling people shameless (her invocation of mixing business and personal reminds me of the repeated question in Hill of Freedom), then the wiser acquaintance temporarily forgotten. I can’t truthfully say that the ensemble is balanced; in both script dimensionality and in Kim and Kwon’s past history with Hong, their performances can’t help but outshine the excellent contributions of Kim Sae-byuk and Jo Yun-hui, both making their first of a number of Hong appearances. Kim Sae-byuk especially gets perhaps the ugliest crying scene in all of Hong during her Chinese restaurant scene, drooling soju as she wails in the face of Bong-wan’s cowardice.

It’s also well worth noting that this has, by my count, the fourth and fifth heard characters in Hong that aren’t seen on screen. The first and second were both over phone calls; to Jung-rae’s producer in Woman on the Beach, apparently played by Moon Sung-keun, and to Kyeong-nam’s critic girlfriend in Like You Know It All (edit: apparently played by Moon So-ri in her first Hong appearance), while the third was a waiter in In Another Country. The two here are possibly Hong’s most impactful yet. The first is the taxi driver who comments that Ah-reum has a unique look and doesn’t read himself (it’s possible that this return to the writing world was inspired by the talk about reading books in On the Beach at Night Alone); according to the Korean Movie Database he’s played by none other than Gi Ju-bong, the perpetual older man side character in Hong. Meanwhile, the second is Bong-wan’s new assistant, who the viewer can tell even from intonation isn’t Chang-sook; she’s seemingly played by Park Ye-ju, who I think played Myung-soo’s girlfriend in On the Beach at Night Alone. One could read that as a metatextual comment on how Kim was replaced by Park as Jeong Jeon-soo’s love interest, though that’s probably too tenuous to say. Coupled with Kang Ta-eu, the man with the feminine face in Claire’s Camera, as the Chinese restaurant delivery person, every single person with a speaking or featured part in The Day After is a recurring Hong actor, which certainly says something about the consolidation of his production methods and characters.

I haven’t been keeping track of how many pans Hong has in his films, which I slightly regret but which might have been too herculean of a task considering what else I must tally, but I do feel that, while it’s been a trend in these past few films, he pans much more often in The Day After. That is, until the final two dialogue scenes. Most of the film, after all, is a series of debates, of people prodding at each other to try to understand the other, whether it be surrounding Bong-wan’s infidelity or his and Ah-reum’s more philosophically inclined discussions. The second-to-last dialogue scene, of Bong-wan and Chang-sook deciding together to engage in another act of subterfuge — which I found morally horrible on the first few viewings but which is now very funny and delightfully pragmatic to me now — then features no pans or zooms once the two sit down together. Then, the final shot between Ah-reum and Bong-wan runs twelve minutes long, only zooming in and panning between faces at around the ten minute mark. I still prefer my Hong panning to happen less often, but I recognized much better this time the purpose of such an aesthetic shift. The two scenes are maybe the only times in the film that both people in the conversation end up on the same page, even if it means surmounting a foolish man’s deliberate attempt to mentally bury one of the most stressful days in his life; it’s not clear, again, how much time passes between the main day and the coda, only made more uncanny by the repetition in conversation early on, but it seems at least almost a year.

If Google Translate is correct, The Day After is the first Hong to have a different title translation from Korean, which I think is the more open-ended After That, since, appropriately, The Day He Arrives. It’s easy to compare the two films of course; this is Hong’s first in black-and-white since then, kicking off a now extremely frequent return to monochrome, and the English titles suggest a linkage (maybe or maybe not intended by Hong) that extends to the uncertainty of what the title exactly refers to. The Day After might refer to the finale, but it also might to the day that takes up most of the film, referring to everything that happens after either Bong-wan and Chang-sook’s first breakup or his early morning conversation with Hae-joo at home.

Many have commented, of course, on the new focus on religion in The Day After; while Buddhism has been invoked before, probably most apparently in In Another Country, and Christianity was discussed in Like You Know It All, this is the first work that openly relates its significance to the main character. I forgot that Hong goes so far as to bring back voiceover to bring forth the simple piety of Ah-reum’s prayer in the snow, and that she initially refrained from specifically mentioning God until after she starts drinking in the second restaurant scene; Bong-wan scoffing at the non-churchgoing Hae-joo’s invocation of devils is a great touch too. I think it’s that exact spiritual invocation that prompts the coda: instead of leaving it with each character going their separate ways, Hong instead allows the state of grace that Ah-reum (and Kim) provides to apply to Bong-wan as well. He finds his reason for living that he couldn’t place in the Chinese restaurant scene, and his face appears more comfortable. If it’s a forced development, and even more extreme than the fake pregnancy in Night and Day, it’s one placed in a new context, which allows for people to resolve something in their lives in a meaningful, tangible way.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Claire’s Camera

English Title: Claire’s Camera
Korean Title: 클레어의 카메라/Keul-le-eo-ui ka-me-la
Premiere Date: May 21, 2017
U.S. Release Year: 2018
Festival: Cannes (Special Screenings)
Film Number: 20
First Viewing Number: 8
First Viewing Date: June 11, 2017
Viewing Number: 5
Ranking (at beginning of run): 20
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 23
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 8
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 21
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 69 minutes (24th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Linear with some possible flashbacks
Recurring Actors: Kim Min-hee (third appearance), Isabelle Huppert (second appearance), Mark Peranson (second appearance), Kang Ta-eu (second appearance), Chang Mi-hee (first appearance)
Season: Spring (May)
Weather: Sunny, cloudy, windy
Alcohol: Tsingtao beer, Mei Kuei Lu Chiew baijiu, Saint Cyr white wine
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, water, orange juice, tea
Food: Chinese dim sum, bulgogi, Korean roll crackers, apples, pineapple, grapefruit, bread
Drinking Scenes: 2
Creative People: Film directors and salespeople, poet, photographer, children’s music composer
Academia: Former film teacher and student, middle school music teacher
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 1
Family: N/A
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: 1
Number of Shots: 33
Number of Zooms: 21 out, 17 in
Music Style: Winter (Vivaldi, The Four Seasons)
Title Background: First shot/Last shot and optical shot in closing credits (ball in Jeonwonsa logo)
Voiceover: 1 (audio flashback only)

I actually didn’t realize that Claire’s Camera is the Hong film that I’ve seen most, even more than any of the shorts. It’s not the shortest Hong — there are now three features that are shorter, including Hill of Freedom — and it’s nowhere near my favorite; I don’t even necessarily see it as breezy as most Hong acolytes. But it’s probably the Hong I’ve actively tried to understand/love the most, partly because of Sean, who adores it and has expounded many equally fascinating theories, and partly because I feel like the tossed-together quality — if I recall correctly, Hong and Isabelle Huppert spontaneously decided to make a film at Cannes 2016 and filmed it in just a handful of days — makes this deceptively slippery, where the undercurrents of mystique seep in under what seems to be incredibly light, even by Hong’s standards. It took my four full viewings to love this on the level of Hong’s other work from the 2010s, but I’ve come to embrace the strange conflict it raises within me.

Part of what makes it strange is the use of two female leads, especially two as captivating as Huppert and Kim Min-hee; the charisma they exude is similar, especially because Claire is a considerably more effervescent/less burdened character than Anne was, and so the back-and-forth motion that the film’s structure leads to, jumping between the two women before they meet just before the halfway point, only to then go back to the Chinese restaurant scene between Wan-so and Yang-hye — I forgot that both Oki’s Movie and this had baijiu scenes — creates an odd momentum that doesn’t quite flow in the usual Hongian way. This is maybe because Jung Jin-young and Chang Mi-hee (who doesn’t appear in any other Hongs) lack that history with Hong, though I hasten to say that both, especially Jung, are terrific.

It’s also strange seeing Kim playing an “ordinary” character who has to report to a boss. Something that I’ve always gravitated to in her performances is how she seems both within the world and apart from it, which will be taken to new heights in the films to come. Here, however, it’s kind of bizarre to watch her just writing down things in forms and taping up crates in the opening and closing scenes, performing these mundane tasks that Hong lingers on for relatively extended periods of time. But what makes, for instance, the scene where she is fired by Yang-hye is the unpredictability added to what could otherwise be a rote flashback scene; Man-hee’s sudden affection for the dog previously out of frame and her taking a selfie enliven things greatly.

Perhaps that’s something of what makes Claire’s Camera difficult to totally embrace for me: the surfaces aren’t as immediately compelling as Hong’s other work of this period, and it’s only in brief snatches of repetition or moments that arise out of nowhere that he truly reaches those same heights. The Cannes setting almost makes things unreal in a way; where everyone is transient, even Claire — despite the foreknowledge of Huppert’s experience with the film festival and the knowing irony of Claire saying it’s her first time in Cannes, she embodies the feeling of being lost in a city perfectly — the societal strictures deeply felt in South Korea are slightly more abstract, and the sales company, presumably the actual FineCut booth because of the conspicuous Yourself and Yours poster, is fairly nebulous.

Then again, Claire’s Camera‘s comparative nebulousness, especially in comparison to the sensation that everything in the films since at least Hill of Freedom was freighted with meaning, is one of its most endearing qualities. Little moments rise without warning: Man-hee reveals that she likes to compose children’s music, Claire and Wan-soo take time to learn a Marguerite Duras poem, a short film director talks to Man-hee about how you need honesty to make a feature film. There’s a greater air of randomness and chance to the film, which really begins in earnest when Claire and Wan-soo first meet, extended awkward pause and all, that allows for quick stops along the way of what seems to be a fairly comprehensible narrative surrounding the Koreans that Claire flits into and out of, lending local color in every scene she’s in.

Comprehensible, that is, until one factors in Claire’s depicted photograph of Man-hee and the “hot pants” scene (which reminds me of Moong-kyung chastising his mother for wearing a revealing top in Hahaha). In the former, Man-hee never wears an outfit that resembles the one she’s wearing in the photograph in the film proper, to say nothing of the seemingly inconsistent outdoor light in the Chinese restaurant scenes (which also feature a half-hearted attempt on the part of Yang-hye to start over in her relationship like in Yourself and Yours); it looks near dusk when Claire leaves, but then becomes bright daylight when she comes back to retrieve her coat.

The latter would appear to be an explanation of the photograph, but it would appear to take place the day after when Wan-soo is going to his gala screening, and again Man-hee is wearing the wrong outfit. One of the most memorable screenings of my life was watching Claire’s Camera at VIFF sitting a few seats away from Mark Peranson, and he told Sean, Evan, and I that, first, his character is named Paul like in On the Beach at Night Alone and potentially the same person. More relevantly, Claire is in the scene because apparently Huppert was on set and annoyed that she didn’t have a scene that day; Hong inserted the scene and thus the whole chronology and web of character relationships is disrupted once more. I’m definitely sympathetic to Sean’s current hypothesis that the film involves time travel, with Claire going into the tunnel that Man-hee looked into before to take the photo and thus alter the outcome, allowing her to get her job back, but obviously I can’t be certain; Hong did apparently find the idea very funny when he heard about it though.

Weirdly, I think the fundamental seed of Claire’s Camera comes from the scene in In Another Country where Anne concludes that all the women in the conversation are pretty. There’s a fascinating dynamic between Man-hee and Claire, where they both eventually come to the same conclusion about practically everything: elevators, the painting, Yang-hye, Wan-soo the drunkard — the quote “95% of my mistakes in life were because of alcohol” is eternal. Despite the substantial conflict in Man-hee’s situation and the total lack of plans or preconceptions on Claire’s part, the two form a nice, symbiotic bond; even though there are really only four scenes where they are together, the viewer believes this connection instantly.

Indeed, the general pleasantness of many of the scenes makes the longer conversations, especially with Yang-hye and the more generically jealous way she’s written, stick out a little more than usual. But that’s made up for in scenes like the audio flashback (which Hong has never otherwise done) to Man-hee’s firing, which she first hears and then reenacts before the adorable dog reappears, and the notion of past interactions bleeding into the present space has only really been front and center in Tale of Cinema.

And of course, there’s Claire’s camera itself (leaving aside the probable Rohmer allusion). As others have noted, it’s quite similar to Yangyang’s idea of photographing the backs of people’s heads in Yi Yi. However, I noted this time that Claire provides slightly different explanations to Man-hee and to Wan-soo and Yang-hye. To the latter, she cites how people change in the moment when you take their picture; to the former, she says something less related to photography and much more relevant to Man-hee’s situation: that the only way to change things is to look at them again very slowly; Claire’s method is by taking pictures and getting the time to observe one’s face and eyes.

Man-hee’s is left up to interpretation, but the clothes cutting, which seemed somewhat arbitrary before, strikes me now as her own take on it, reframing something by examining it in the act of destruction. It also leads to perhaps the only truly emotional revelation about Claire: her boyfriend, a bookstore seller who told her piano — probably the one from On the Beach at Night Alone — died a few months back. This in turn almost seems to create a space for improvement for Man-hee; the last shot of Claire is in some ways humorous, her repurposing the shredded clothing for a bra, while Man-hee is able to return to her employment. Things work in mysterious ways in Claire’s Camera; it’s equally likely that Man-hee got her job back because of Yang-hye’s rejection by Wan-soo (people definitely focus on the names’ similarity to Kim’s and Hong’s, perhaps too much so) as it is because of Claire’s time-traveling intervention. Hong’s universe is big enough to comprise both, and that’s what makes even his slighter films count.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: On the Beach at Night Alone

English Title: On the Beach at Night Alone
Korean Title: 밤의 해변에서 혼자/Bamui Haebyeoneseo Honja
Premiere Date: February 16, 2017
U.S. Release Year: 2017
Festival: Berlin (Best Actress)
Film Number: 19
First Viewing Number: 10
First Viewing Date: October 12, 2017
Viewing Number: 3
Ranking (at beginning of run): 6
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 22
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 11
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 6
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 101 minutes (10th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Two marked unequal parts
Recurring Actors: Seo Young-hwa (sixth appearance), Moon Sung-keun (fifth appearance), Song Seon-mi (third appearance), Kwon Hae-hyo (third appearance), Jeong Jae-yeong (third appearance), Ahn Jae-hong (third appearance), Han Jai (third appearance), Shin Sun (third appearance), Kim Min-hee (second appearance), Gong Min-jeong (second appearance), Mark Peranson (first appearance), Park Ye-ju (first appearance), Kang Ta-eu (first appearance)
Season: Winter
Weather: Cloudy, sunny
Alcohol: Max and Cass beer, makgeolli, soju, red wine
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, water, tea
Food: Tomato pasta, sausages, tuna kimbap, apple, Spam, rice porridge, yogurt, chips, shrimp, seafood
Drinking Scenes: 5
Creative People: Film actress, director, assistant directors, script supervisor, production staff, programmer
Academia: N/A
Vacation: 1
Dream Sequences: 1
Film Screening: 1 (off-screen)
Films Within Films: 0-1
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 2
Family: N/A
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: 1
Number of Shots: 53
Number of Zooms: 20 out, 14 in
Music Style: String Quintet (Schubert), electric piano pieces, sung Korean song
Title Background: Black background (outline and ball in Jeonwonsa logo)
Voiceover: N/A

In the interviews I’ve read/watched with Hong, he’s consistently stressed that his films are not meant to be considered autobiographical; I’m paraphrasing here but while they may incorporate elements from his life, they aren’t, strictly speaking, things that happened to him. The more I watch his films, the more I agree with him, a sentiment that now even extends to what’s widely considered his most directly autobiographical film, On the Beach at Night Alone, which is also one of his most popular; notably it’s the only other one of his films to be released to US theaters the same year it premiered, helped by both Kim (hot off The Handmaiden) and the early Berlin premiere date. Made after it was revealed that Hong and Kim Min-hee were having an affair, something which they amazingly acknowledged at the Seoul premiere of the film, its plot would seem to be literally based on what happened to them. But as far as I know, Kim didn’t flee to Hamburg and Hong didn’t have a breakdown, and of course they’re still happily together to this day. What makes the film among Hong’s most affecting lies deeper than just its passing resemblance to reality; if it’s personal, it’s in a way that reflects artistic sensibilities rather than a reflection of the circumstances, in his typical fashion.

Evan and I have talked about a certain muted quality that Hong’s films have taken in the Kim era, and indeed On the Beach at Night Alone leans into the feeling of much of the second of Right Now, Wrong Then had, a general state of continuous contemplation and assessment. While there are two clearly marked parts, with distinct cast credits like Oki’s Movie sans part titles, the two share a similar floating feeling, something more ghostly than other Hongs have actively sought in the past. Kim’s presence is totally felt, to be sure, but by design Young-hee is as drifting as any Hong protagonist, someone unsure of her place in the wake of this shattering event.

I had completely forgotten that On the Beach at Night Alone opens with a fade-in into a close-up of Kim’s head from behind, a startlingly direct touch and focus on a person that is at once warranted and slightly misleading. As I’ve tracked the molds that Hong has formed around his most common actors, I’ve almost come to realize that Kim is in some ways the perfect amalgam of all his protagonists to date, precisely because of her ability to be chameleonic while still maintaining her stable presence. As such, she seems equally able to hold the screen on her own and to cede room for her co-stars, to redirect focus like she’s bending light, and Hong is there to help decide when to do that.

That quality is on display throughout On the Beach at Night Alone; even though there are supporting characters that are more prominent — Jee-young, Jun-hee, Chun-woo, Sang-won — the film acts as more of a carousel of characters who show up, make an impression, than leave than basically any Hong to date. The only true stable center is Young-hee, who, while she remains front and center, is as much a spectator to all these other dramas going on (especially in the second part) as she is an active participant in her own personal struggles. Crucially, while those struggles are catalyzed specifically from the publicity of her affair, her focus is not on fretting over the problems of the past, but instead looking forward: whether she can reunite with her lover, whether she can resolve what she wants, whether she can live life in a way that suits her; the prayer at the bridge reminds me both of Woman on the Beach and Oki’s Movie in the latter’s focus on a bridge as something of a hallowed place.

While the natural inference is to assume that this is merely a two-part linear plot, with the gap between the first and second part an indefinite interval during her stay in Hamburg. But I’ve always been equally compelled by the idea that the first part of On the Beach at Night Alone is a film-within-the-film, or perhaps what Young-hee is thinking about as she watches the film that ends in the first scene of the second part. Notably, nothing about Young-hee being an actress who had an affair with a director is mentioned in the first part, and I don’t think there’s mention of leaving specifically because of publicity instead of just being fed up with Seoul and South Korea. Likewise, the place where Young-hee went abroad is never mentioned, though I also think that I only know it’s Hamburg because I’ve read about it; the Germany connection appears again regardless though, and the discussion about (presumably) German men takes place in a much more positive light compared to Woman on the Beach.

Hong seems especially captivated by the pictorial quality of Hamburg; a few shots begin with just landscape (the Planetarium and the beach), then with the characters walking through the frame, then holding a little longer on the landscape before cutting away, a void that’s only truly matched by a shot zooming in on the waves in Gangneung. I often think about the set diary that Mark Peranson — the editor of Cinema Scope, who hilariously appears in multiple Hong films — wrote which is in the Cinema Guild Blu-ray; he talked about how Hong seemed to be figuring out this film on the fly even more than usual. There’s even at least one scene which he shot and ended up not using, of Kim wandering around the stalls in the market for something like ten minutes, which I’ve always wanted to see.

I always associate Seo Young-hwa first with Jee-young, and she’s always been one of Kim’s most potent on-screen partners; her recessiveness plays off well against Kim’s unpredictability, and this first section is virtually all them aside from their encounters with the bookseller and Paul and Lillian — Bettina Steinbrügge, art museum curator and Peranson’s partner; that is, or at least was their actual apartment in Hamburg, La Chinoise poster and all. Indeed, I think I also heard from Peranson that Karl Feder, who plays the bookseller/children’s music composer, was an actual bookseller (the outside book stand reminds me of Nobody’s Daughter Haewon) who did die of cancer sometime after filming; his assertion that the simple pieces become more complicated when you go deeper is certainly something of a Hongian mission statement. There is, then, a sort of sense that the first part, in another country, functions more akin to documentary, while the second steps back into the more traditional Hong narrative formulations. The overlaying of played music, by both Young-hee and the bookseller, onto the following few shots fits more into Hong’s approach than I had realized — he does the same with the folk song in Our Sunhi — though it’s not terribly common.

It’s probably best to talk about the mysterious man — played by Park Hong-yeol, who shot almost all of Hong’s films from Hahaha to the first part of On the Beach at Night Alone — at this time. In the first part, he’s simply an irritant, pursuing the women across grassy fields to ask for the time, at least before the final scene. During, the second part he seems almost implicitly associated with Chun-woo, only appearing twice on the balcony, with both shots he’s featured in (even the vigorous window-wiping one) ending with Chun-woo alone in the hotel room living room. Though it’s the only time that Hong used as a singular figure as a focal point for his surrealism, I don’t tend to dwell on him as much as some, if only because he seems to reflect the action more than try to directly interfere with it; him carrying Young-hee off could simply be a visualization of herself walking off as she does at the end of the film, and likewise him fluidly opening the window screen could be Young-hee opening it herself. I don’t mean to say that he carries no significance at all, but to assign a specific metaphorical role to him like death or the media or Sang-won feels a bit too constricting for Hong.

While such exterior forces aren’t very present in On the Beach at Night Alone, concerns over aging and the passage of time very much are. Especially in the second half, people keep commenting about how Young-hee seems to have matured — indeed, maybe it’s just her acting but she does appear more reserved in the second part — and there’s constant talk about how people have gotten older, Chun-woo seems like he’s gotten younger, and how people just generally feel tired. In both Myung-soo and Paul’s cases, people talk about how these kind-hearted men have been worn-down by the women they’re with. This is a thread that crops up earlier than I remembered in Hong, and which is especially prevalent in the Kim films; especially after the relative youthfulness of Yourself and Yours, it comes as a surprise.

There’s also a little more rhyming across the two parts than I remembered, not just in the two couples with subservient/worn-down men or the visits to the beaches. Jee-young mentions that Hamburg is the #1 city that people want to live; Chun-woo proclaims that Gangneung is probably the prettiest city in Korea. Two shots that especially stand out are of Kim exiting a restroom, a moment held like with the landscape shots and which implicitly sets her apart from the food preparation and conversations going on.

Hong has held on conversations between non-main characters before, but I don’t think he’s done it to he has here. The brief exchange between Paul and Lillian about how far the beach is, the poem recitation between Myung-soo and Chun-woo, the absurdly cute scene between the production staff member — Ahn Jae-hong, who’s carved out a nice place for himself in Hong’s universe of being a background character — and the script supervisor as they decide to get Sang-won’s book together; all of these act as essentially continuations of a world that exists outside of Young-hee’s point of view. Of course, these events are all triggered in some way by her presence, and Kim’s vitality is crucial to making her central even as these other people take the spotlight temporarily. The greatest example of this is between Myung-soo and Do-hee as she berates him for not getting to work in the coffee shop. After Young-hee leaves, the conversation continues for another minute and a half, eventually segueing into more mundane conversation about what to eat as the camera zooms in on Myung-soo patiently sorting coffee beans. Jeong Jae-young, in his third and final Hong appearance, fits this role perfectly, passive and tired but kind in his own way, and it has the extra meta-textual resonance of his role in Right Now, Wrong Then; he gets a lovely final shot where he’s smoking alone, out in the cold as Young-hee and Jun-hee go back inside.

I’ve always loved the five-way drinking scene that lasts for eleven minutes and goes through so many dynamics. It begins with the idea of survival and death, and a certain graciousness of death, before moving into Young-hee haranguing her friends and issuing the immortal quote “none of you are qualified to love.” Then, just as unexpectedly, the first true moment of potential queerness arrives with Young-hee and Jun-hee — Song Seon-mi, another key Kim co-star — kissing, which inspires Do-hee to kiss Myung-soo. Of course, this leaves Chun-woo alone, a role truly built for Kwon Hae-hyo’s hangdog expression, which is eventually taken in good humor by all. I’m always struck anew how well it captures the feeling that, even though Young-hee’s been separated from her friends and initially doesn’t seem to remember aspects of them — again the possibility of this being an alternate Young-hee floated to my mind from the previous film — she once again has the possibility of returning from an abyss of isolation and destruction. Crucially, they have basically all fled Seoul to Gangneung, a rejection of the city and its societal expectations, and, along with Jee-young’s own flight to Hamburg, providing alternate possibilities of living to Young-hee. The extended section with Jun-hee and Chun-woo as they hang around in the hotel room underscores this, a lingering of the communal feeling that becomes a tangible possibility.

Before getting to the ending proper, the three performances (five if you count the piano playing) form something of an intriguing place in On the Beach at Night Alone, which potentially ties into the Walt Whitman poem that probably provided Hong the title. Young-hee’s song that she sings softly to herself outside; the poem that Myung-soo and Chun-woo recite together that’s apparently on the restaurant’s wall; the book passage that Sang-won reads to Young-hee; they all together seem to almost freeze the film, a state of deliberate reflectiveness that otherwise heightens what’s ambient otherwise, as in the shot of Young-hee patting the cabbage. They are little, privileged moments of appreciation that help typify what makes the film so special and strange to me.

The final act of On the Beach at Night Alone is another extended dream functioning much the same as Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. To cap it off, Moon Sung-keun returns for his final of six Hong appearances; just as Youn Yuh-jung appeared as Kim’s mom to pass the torch from the Jung Yu-mi era, so does Moon appear to reprise something of his past roles stretching back to Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and of course much of the Jung era. What makes this feel different is how much Young-hee shifts through, confidence to self-loathing to laughing along to stoicism in the face of Sang-won’s tears. One could certainly read the self-portrait coming to a head here: Sang-won’s process of starting with the experience of a person he’s loved and not setting anything in advance sounds mightily similar to Hong’s, and Young-hee’s accusations of personal stories being boring and him trying to lessen his torment probably aren’t far from criticisms of Hong. But then again, that book reading casts things in a new light, placing a different lens of artistic reflection on the situation; the inscrutability of Kim’s gaze, both appreciative and accusatory as she gets up to leave, is something to behold.

The ending of course hearkens back to both Woman on the Beach and Like You Know It All; the incredibly moving use of Schubert’s String Quintet reminds me most oddly of Night and Day. But if there’s still a certain ambiguity to Young-hee’s ultimate resolution at the end of On the Beach at Night Alone, it’s created through an internal approach that pulls from and reflects the people that she’s interacted with, in both reality and dreams. The shot of her framed against the sky as she talks to (possibly) the assistant director off camera is as iconic (in the classical sense) as anything Hong has done, and there’s a greater sense that whatever inner peace she’s achieved has been done on her terms. By meeting with all these people and recentering her perspective, she’s able to move forth into the future on her own.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Yourself and Yours

English Title: Yourself and Yours
Korean Title: 당신자신과 당신의 것/Dangsinjasingwa dangsinui geot
Premiere Date: September 12, 2016
U.S. Release Year: 2020
Festival: Toronto, San Sebastian (Best Director)
Film Number: 18
First Viewing Number: 7
First Viewing Date: May 24, 2017
Viewing Number: 4
Ranking (at beginning of run): 1
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 21
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 7
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 1
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 86 minutes (19th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Linear, possibly four unequal unmarked parts
Recurring Actors: Yoo Joon-sang (eighth appearance), Kim Eui-sung (sixth appearance), Kwon Hae-hyo (second appearance), Baek Hyeon-jin (second appearance), Lee Yoo-young (first appearance), Gong Min-jeong (first appearance)
Season: Summer
Weather: Sunny, rainy
Alcohol: Makgeolli, Max beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Iced coffee, water
Food: Watermelon, pollock, noodle soup, spaghetti, salad, chips, squid
Drinking Scenes: 5
Creative People: Painter, film director, writer
Academia: N/A
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: 2
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 1
Family: Son-mother
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: 1
Number of Shots: 43
Number of Zooms: 17 out, 15 in
Music Style: Upbeat strings and tambourine, upbeat piano and horn and drum
Title Background: Gray paper/Black background with white text for closing credits
Voiceover: 1 (text message only)

Yourself and Yours has been my favorite Hong ever since I first saw it. I actually thought it was my fourth Hong, the one I saw after the first time where I understood what he was going for, Right Now, Wrong Then, but it was actually my seventh; by that SIFF screening I already loved and appreciated his work. But something about it, perhaps it being my first Hong in a theater, and perhaps aided by the guy a few seats over from me rocking back and forth in his chair at how annoyed he was at not understanding what was going on, totally transformed my perception of Hong. Sure, there’s an implicit urge to defend and champion the underappreciated works, even for a perennially underappreciated director like Hong — though I always cherish how it’s the other shared Hong in the top 3 of the Seattle Screen Scene trio of Sean, Evan, and I. I’ve always thought of the film as the forgotten one as the Kim Min-hee train began rolling, premiering randomly at TIFF and not getting distributed until Cinema Guild released it in 2020. But every time I watch it, I feel like my understanding changes and my total adoration deepens further. If this is my north star for Hong, the film that will always act as the representative of everything I love about him, it only shines the brighter with my fundamentally refreshed perspective on him, while still retaining the wondrous, inexplicably heart-melting core that it’s always had for me.

This is definitely one of the Hongs that I’ve discussed most with friends, so I’m not beginning with anything new by stating outright that this is Hong’s comedy-of-remarriage, or I guess comedy-of-recoupling to put it more accurately. The difference between the only other Hong that centers around a couple (if just structurally) that reforms at the end, The Power of Kangwon Province, isn’t just the difference between early Hong and middle Hong, but also the difference between someone who sees relationships as doomed and someone who sees relationships as full of boundless possibilities.

What makes Yourself and Yours so bewildering, even for those who love Hong, is that it’s maybe the only film of his that has an identifiable narrative gambit that isn’t inherent in the structure. While the film uses three cuts-to-black that don’t specifically signal a change in part, something that I don’t think he’s done anywhere else — one could speculate as to whether Min-jeong shifts identity during these junctures, though I don’t think so — there’s no other apparent structure that guides the film, though there are certain jumps that radically upset the viewer’s sense of the world of the film as surely as Min-jeong’s personas.

Speaking of which, I’ve come to feel on this watch that Yourself and Yours, even among people who adore it, is perhaps too much talked about in terms of wondering whether Min-jeong is telling the truth, whether she’s making it all up, and especially the confident assertion that she has a twin. As she says, in response to Sang-won’s feelings of anxiety, mystery, and fun, “knowing things is not as important as you think. Don’t you think?” a slyly paradoxical pair of sentences that nevertheless gets to the heart of this film and Hong’s work at large.

Indeed, the precise nature of each of her deceptions — which reminded me much more of a Rivettian heroine this time, toying with men through performance — actually shifts between parts. Min-jeong actually first appears on screen independently of Yeong-soo — they only share seven shots in the whole film, and two of them are part of a dream sequence — and, after first denying Jae-yong’s certainty that he’s seen her before, claims that she’s Min-jeong’s twin, an event which, contrary to my memory, happens before the couple’s separation, i.e. the separation is not directly responsible for this bit of persona swapping. Later, Min-jeong doesn’t offer any kind of claim of being a twin to Sang-won or to Yeong-soo when he finally catches up with her. While it’s fun to think that Min-jeong does actually have a twin who got in a fight at the Goldstar bar and may or may not substitute in during some of the scenes — I’ve thought that many times, and anything is possible in the world of Hong — I’ve now come around to another point of view, which only deepens the film for me.

But before getting to that, in the manner of Yourself and Yours which manages to fill a whole multiverse of loose ends, there’s so much that goes on around this relationship. Initially foregrounded is Yeong-soo’s ailing mother who refuses to eat; Yeong-soo, provided he kept his plans, goes to see her in the day-long gap when he also sustained his left foot injury. The initial discussion between him and Joong-haeng is fittingly downbeat and serious, only happening to veer into the rumor about Min-jeong which directly stems from Yeong-soo’s interest in marrying her. Later, Joong-haeng suggests that Yeong-soo is in a slightly crazy mood because of his mother, though it’s left purposely unclear whether she’s died, worsened, or merely in the state of refusal that she’s currently in, a structuring absence among so many.

Largely because of Evan’s formulation, which I generally agree with, I’ve seen Yourself and Yours as, by virtue of existing in the gaps between Hong’s first film with Kim and the rest of his ongoing collaboration, being in some ways haunted by her presence, where the absence of a centering character like her allows for more exploration and opportunities; I even wrote a Two Cents capsule for Reverse Shot about it. I still agree with that to some degree, though as I talked about yesterday I think there’s a lot more exploration in Right Now, Wrong Then than I gave it credit for.

One presence that Yourself and Yours definitively and retroactively feels haunted by, though, is Kim Joo-hyuk, who with Lee Yoo-young conceivably turn in the two greatest Hong performances ever, and certainly the best by non-regulars (Lee’s only appeared in one other to date). There’s an especially tragic reason for that: after the two of them started dating a few months after the film premiered, Kim died in a car accident a year later. His presence, which now to me feels like a significantly more self-aware and empathetically pitiable Lee Sun-kyun character, has always stuck with me, a more purposefully depressive take on the Hongian man. Some of this, of course, stems from his foot injury and the slow walking on crutches he has to do, which this time reminded me of nothing less than Chen Shiang-chyi in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. But his entire manner and loneliness are already moving even before this tragic occurrence; it’s like watching Leslie Cheung for me now, an inherent sadness that even extends to his funniest moments.

Make no mistake, Yourself and Yours is among the funniest Hongs to me, but it’s also one of the saddest, both going to extremes and then coming back to an equilibrium of unbelievably heightened emotion. The bedroom argument is among the rawest scenes Hong’s ever done, in large part because of its pacing, a continual shared inability to trust, though this time I found myself understanding Min-jeong much more than I had before. At least initially, Lee’s performance is fairly reminiscent of Jung Yu-mi’s characters, who Sean once cited as essentially acting as a female version of the Hongian man — with her unique twists of course; it’s also worth bringing up that the other time someone tried to get their partner to moderate their drinking was Jin-gu and his wife in Oki’s Movie, the gender is flipped here — but in this instance, unlike basically any other Hong to date, a greater sense of a relationship’s history bears down upon the argument, a series of recriminations and accusations that, at this juncture, can’t be resolved. That this is the first view of a couple, of an awful argument that, ultimately, boils down to lack of trust and the inability of Yeong-soo to decide whether to believe his friends or Min-jeong, simmers underneath everything to follow; the zoom-in as Yeong-soo collapses on his face is maybe Hong’s most singularly stunning.

I appreciated more this time how Kim Eui-sung as Joong-haeng seems to be playing a far kinder but more morose version of the friend he played in Hill of Freedom; he exists at the periphery of many scenes, cautiously going along with Yeong-soo on his visits and in general almost acting as the Hongian man version of a counselor, a veteran giving the new star advice on how to proceed; in that sense the view of love that he tries to impart to Yeong-soo while they’re drinking together comes from the perspective of the Hongian man who thinks everything in life is necessary, while Yeong-soo espouses a more whole-hearted, almost innocent or chivalrous view of a love that overshadows all. The first visit to Min-jeong’s house, with the nearly subliminal dream that takes place in one shot and the extended wondering about the running meter, is as funny and mundane as the next shot, of Min-jeong perhaps coming out to see who was there, perhaps just an imagination of her on Yeong-soo’s part, is spectral.

I forgot that there are actually two visits to the dress shop where Min-jeong works, though I’ve never forgotten that Hong holds on the shot as the worker there takes off the mannequin’s arms and then the dress, leaving it a bare torso; I’ve always thought of it in some way as related to the Venus de Milo, though I suppose Winged Victory of Samothrace is an equally likely possibility. After Yeong-soo walks away from the store, there’s an ambiguous shot of Min-jeong eating an Italian meal; of course it’s intended partly to underscore her subsequent claim to Sang-won that she hasn’t eaten, but it also acts as an odd potential reverse shot, Min-jeong potentially seeing Yeong-soo and deciding not to let him know she’s close. There’s also a totally random zoomed-in, out-of-focus shot of a pigeon right before Min-jeong tells Jae-young that she’s not interested in him anymore; there haven’t been many definitive breakups in Hong, and it’s incredibly funny that Kwon is on the receiving end.

In general, Kwon Hae-hyo, after already turning in a terrific performance in In Another Country, makes his decisive move into Hong’s company with ease; the first shot of him alone, unfolding his ridiculous bike and riding away, along with the zoom-in on him as he spots Min-jeong, is hilarious; his hair also seems to have rapidly grayed in just four years which makes his interactions with everyone else much funnier. It’s also very well worth noting that in both first meetings over iced coffee, Min-jeong appears to be reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which may have even inspired/caused her persona changes.

After Right Now, Wrong Then, which foregrounds the outsider status of its two leads, Yourself and Yours goes a great ways in establishing a stable, preexisting community with frequent interactions that probably only exists in his film school films, though artistry is subordinated here to relationships. Baek Hyeon-jin, the music producer from the end of The Day He Arrives, reappears here as the bartender, and his random gossip with other regulars about Min-jeong and his seeming willingness to play devil’s advocate is just delightful; I really love how separate the bar and the table feel in terms of space, as if the regulars are looking through a telescope at first Jae-young and then Sang-won, the two outsiders. Especially in his “section” of the film, Jae-young almost feels like our avatar in the film, someone tossed into the web of relationships and who can’t make heads or tails of it.

Something I noticed this time around is that, aside from Joong-haeng, Yeong-soo seems to be almost exclusively surrounded by strong, even tough women. There’s the woman who works at the dress shop, but there’s also the first two times he’s at the pollock restaurant. Young-soo’s friend’s quote “drink up, you pathetic men” is probably among the most deservedly beloved Hong lines — and a callback to Hahaha — and her casual dismissal of the differences between men and women, so central to Hong’s films before, is if not a sea change then an introduction of another perspective, which in some ways becomes crucial to the coda of the film. But there’s also the woman with the eye patch, who helps transpose Min-jeong’s narrative onto Yeong-soo’s current state by making him also wonder if he’s seen her before, with another mention of Hongik University to boot; it’s also brought up that Yeong-soo was once a womanizer himself, though it seems like he’s changed. Her left eye injury is of course implicitly connected with his left leg injury, and this time her inviting him to drink with her friends reminded me of when Seong-jun accepted in The Day He Arrives, which was also a makgeolli scene. He stays this time however, an acceptance of loneliness that extends to his vain attempt to text Min-jeong (which I had forgotten was in brief voiceover).

But what truly triggers the breakdown of categories of children and wolves, Min-jeong or her twin, even between man and woman (and what constitutes a “truly impressive man”), comes from the most unexpected and delightful of sources, Jae-young and Sang-won discovering each other. It’s always been one of the funniest Hong scenes to me, doubly so because they’re two of Hong’s great regulars (though Kwon predictably is actually older than Yoo), and the way they slowly realize each other’s identities after nearly coming to blows and engaging in basically a pissing contest is so amazing, as is the brief cut back after the couple leaves to them giddily reminiscing about their school days and the apparent drinking that middle school students got up to; it’s a type of friendship and male bonding that Hong usually doesn’t portray in such an unadulterated form.

What I really keyed in on this time, though, was Min-jeong’s extremely emotional reaction, along with her almost seeming to recognize Joong-haeng as she goes into the restroom. This time, I felt as if the collision and quick resolution of the two men she’s spent time with in the past few days was a shock to her system, a realization of the possibilities of rapprochement that she had been denying for the past week or so, causing her to temporarily drop her persona and lose the too-emotional insecurity that she had been embodying on with Sang-won, not to mention the confidence with Jae-young; all of this is sustained so brazenly and uncannily throughout the film that it’s truly astonishing to see it crumble virtually in the background.

Each of the last three scenes, on this watch, feels among the greatest film scenes I’ve ever seen, especially in both Hong’s writing and Kim and Lee’s acting. They all strike such a tentative, intimate balance, constantly shifting in terms of who has the initiative and in how much each is willing to give to the other person. What’s so striking is that Yeong-soo calls her Min-jeong far less than I remembered; his willingness to simply ask who she is, rather than the repeated insistence that the two men had before, ties so deeply into the nature of relationships, into how, as he said before, he tried to fully understand her; before, he fell into the trap of the Hongian man, using all these descriptions that might as well come from Our Sunhi to capture someone who, in her shifting personas, can’t be pinned down. This time, he only slips up a few times in even trying to assign her a name, which she never gives. It reminded me this time of the last part of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy; where it differs is in the total uncertainty of it, the way Min-jeong seems to resume being herself, asking what happened between them, and then rejecting it again, an interplay and a cautious negotiation that boils down to one thing: without Min-jeong or whoever looks like her, Yeong-soo has lost his direction. Just as he is curious in her, she is curious in him, a two-way street that extends to his plea to be able to try to hear everything about it even though she thinks he can’t bear it. Min-jeong’s assertion that she hasn’t done anything wrong could apply to so many things: to the Goldstar bar, to her running around with the two men, or even another universe of personal failings; “that’s how I’ve always lived.” This is all rectified by that most Hongian of requests: to get a drink, though unlike Min-jeong’s immortal quote they don’t drink to get drunk.

Instead, they end up in bed together, with their places in the bed swapped this time. There’s almost a fluidity of genders here and throughout, or at least gender roles: Min-jeong is the first to compliment Yeong-soo’s appearance, saying he’s cute; he says earlier that he had cried at the pollack restaurant before unprompted. The entire scene almost plays like a recitation of wedding vows; even though they had mutually agreed not to make promises, everything here is in some ways an affirmation: for him to believe in her — Yeong-soo finally makes the choice for his love rather than his friends which he couldn’t make before, to put his trust in real love instead of words and formalities — for her to maybe love him if what he says comes true, for him to never hurt her. What’s so key here is the tentativeness that signals a new beginning; even here they seem to slip and out of “character,” sometimes saying it’s the first time and sometimes implying a past history, though they end up both agreeing that no matter what, it feels like the first time. There’s also the strange ringing that Min-jeong hears briefly, which I swear gets very subtly overlaid on the soundtrack after she says it’s gone, as if she passed it on to Yeong-soo briefly, or even the viewer.

Then there’s the final shot, heralded by a rare but perfectly imperfect dissolve on the candle to indicate the passage of time. First, Yeong-soo wakes up alone; he had had two waking dreams before, one a beautiful reconciliation with the actual Min-jeong, and all signs, including dreams from Hongian men and women alike, point to this being another one, and it’s almost as if he recognizes that history himself in his slumped posture. Then Min-jeong comes in with a container of watermelon, which they agree is better than melons, which are sweeter, because these are more refreshing; they promise to eat it together often; Hong holds on this shot for seemingly a longer period of time, with little snatches of dialogue still under the music, before going to credits.

Each of these scenes feels like such a blessing to me, less a means of repudiating his past works than building on them and providing a better tomorrow. It’s so fitting to me that the truest romance in his films is rebuilt by one of his most inscrutable and outlandish conceits, where something so jarring is needed to reset their shared view of what a relationship means to them. Yeong-soo and Min-jeong talking so intimately, with so much joy and interest in each other’s eyes, is maybe the most gracious and loving image that Hong has ever conveyed.

Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Right Now, Wrong Then

English Title: Right Now, Wrong Then
Korean Title: 지금은맞고그때는틀리다/Jigeumeun-matgo-geuttaeneun-tteullida
Premiere Date: August 13, 2015
U.S. Release Year: 2016
Festival: Locarno (Golden Leopard, Best Actor)
Film Number: 17
First Viewing Number: 3
First Viewing Date: October 11, 2016
Viewing Number: 3
Ranking (at beginning of run): 5
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 20
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 3
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 5
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 121 minutes (5th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Two parts, heavy repetition
Recurring Actors: Yoo Joon-sang (seventh appearance), Gi Ju-bong (sixth appearance), Seo Young-hwa (fifth appearance), Youn Yuh-jung (fifth appearance), Jeong Jae-young (second appearance), Kim Min-hee (first appearance)
Season: Winter
Weather: Sunny, snowy
Alcohol: Soju, makgeolli
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, banana milk, tea (jujube, green organic), water
Food: Sushi, potatoes
Drinking Scenes: 4
Creative People: Film director and assistant and critic, painter, model, writer
Academia: Film students
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: 1 (off-screen)
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: 2 (1 off-screen)
Naps: 3
Family: Daughter-mother
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: 1
Number of Shots: 49
Number of Zooms: 18 out, 29 in
Music Style: Calm synth strings, calm synth organ
Title Background: Gray background, yellow text/Black text for closing credits
Voiceover: 1 (first half)

It’s no exaggeration to say that Right Now, Wrong Then is the film that changed Hong’s career. For the first time since The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, he won the top prize at one of the big European festivals, a Golden Leopard win at Locarno that went some way in putting him back on the map. He received U.S. distribution for the first time since In Another Country; Grasshopper Film picking up the film seemed to galvanize Cinema Guild to resume distributing his films, which they’ve done for every film since after the next one. And of course, it’s the first film with Kim Min-hee, which has subsequently flourished into probably the greatest director-actor artistic and personal partnership since probably John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. As such, especially among some of my fellow Hong acolytes, it almost has a mixed reputation, where the film that made him big internationally once again is ever-so-slightly downplayed, seen as not among his best, and hit with the backhanded compliment “accessible.” Indeed, I’ve always recommended this as the best Hong for someone who hasn’t seen his films before to start with, and while it’s always been among my favorites I felt that it had less mystery or things that captivated me than most of his greatest work. But this watch changed that for me; if it’s now for me one of his true masterpieces, then it arises out of both what makes this such a change for him and how it fits so perfectly into his oeuvre.

I don’t mean to imply, of course, that those who love Right Now, Wrong Then but don’t really connect with other Hongs have an incorrect view about it; my newfound reading of the film is certainly molded by my deep immersion in his multiverse and my at-this-point entirely non-objective feelings towards his work, especially this one. But the idea that the second half of the film is a kind of wish fulfillment for Chun-su, or that he’s gained some kind of omniscience over the narrative, has never really gelled with my understanding of the film — I actually realized I hadn’t rewatched this film since 2017, even though I remember watching it more than just one-and-a-half times.

What I hadn’t connected, and didn’t really have context for before this new run-through, is how radically this is a Kim Min-hee film, or at least a shared Kim and Jeong Jae-young film rather than the other way around. Of course, I had grokked before that Kim is the first and the last person seen in the film, both from behind as she walks, and that she had a larger role than the average Hong woman; indeed, I was primed to look more at her in all the watches I’ve had. But Right Now, Wrong Then isn’t quite like Woman on the Beach, where the perspective seems to be fought over between Jung-rae and Mun-suk, or Oki’s Movie, where the point-of-view character is neatly handed off between parts — though like that film, this initially puts up another title, the perfectly inverted Right Then, Wrong Now, before showing the actual title later.

Instead, Right Now, Wrong Then is a film of true coexistence, where both Hee-jung and Chun-su are given substantial development simultaneously rather than in succession. Of course, one might argue that we only see Hee-jung alone/apart from Chun-su in her final scene in each respective part, and that the rest of the film takes place from Chun-su’s perspective; in the (small) film festival setting the film recalls Like You Know It All more than any other Hong. But saying that, first and foremost, downplays the utterly galvanizing effect Kim has when she first appears on screen. Unlike other Hongian women, who are either already known to the Hongian male, a friend, or the community, Hee-jung truly appears out of nowhere, only revealed with her banana milk — similar to the mysterious carton of milk in Oki’s Movie — after she sits down. This lack of prior context, merely a shy woman glimpsed rather than a past flame or a friend of a friend, leads the viewer to essentially discover her alongside Chun-su.

This process evokes, more powerfully than any film I can recall, the feeling that Hong likely had as he was falling in love with Kim; I don’t think their affair began until after filming ended, and as far as I know he didn’t have any publicized affairs until Kim — he got married at 25, two years earlier than Chun-su. But the sheer magnetism that Kim has from moment one makes it a much less clear-cut case than Chun-su projecting his attraction onto her. Instead, Chun-su’s perspective seems to be simultaneously intertwined with and totally incidental to Kim’s presence. For the first time, Hong seems to be consciously depicting the processes of thinking; even in their first interaction — Kevin B. Lee’s video essay on the film and these paired scenes was also influential for me early on — there’s a greater attention to Hee-jung’s decision-making, with her eye flashes and brief pauses registering on a much more evident level than past Hong characters while still feeling as integrated into the Hongian view of naturalism as anyone else; the zoom-ins on Hee-jung as Chun-su talks about his marriage as she slowly gets more glassy-eyed are as internal as anything Hong’s ever done.

Right Now, Wrong Then, especially in its second half, is quieter and more considered than any other Hong to date, where every interaction, including of course the two magnificent drinking scenes in the sushi restaurant, which run eight and twelve minutes respectively, is teased out a little more than before. This being my first viewing since keying in on the Rivettian nature of Hong, it only feels more apropos: the length a greater opportunity for play and for exploration, where the tiniest changes between the two parts set off a chain of revelations and considerations.

At the same time, this feels different from the kind of repetition found in, say, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate or In Another Country, although the former in some ways gets echoed by Chun-su being left out in the cold in the penultimate scene. Instead of an explicit opportunity to begin again, as in the latter, or another cycle, as in the former, the relationship between the two in their fundamentally identical shape elicits a more complicated response, a clarity of form that only deepens the mystery.

The odd thing about Right Now, Wrong Then is that it exists perfectly well in terms of the first half; I found myself getting surprisingly emotional through most of it, sensing the ardor that Hong feels for Kim. That the second half deepens it further is practically a given, but it doesn’t operate on the level of strict male fantasy that many seem to think. Chun-su gets into more trouble, embarrasses himself — the stripping scene is among the funniest and most extreme Hongian breakdowns — and even if he has a better relationship with Kim and Seong-gook by the end, he only gets kissed twice on the cheek. Instead, a few other readings seem more valid to me, the second one especially: that this is a dream but the dreamer is Hee-jung instead, with her wishing that things had gone better with him; or that this truly is a simple representation of another strand of the multiverse, where it is a random encounter and could stand on its own as surely as the first half could; or that this is even the same timeline but happening years later.

There is a certain omniscience or awareness of what transpired before that can certainly be read in, though I’d argue it applies to both characters — Hee-jung, despite casually smoking in the first half, has quit in the second and says that it’s no longer allowed in the studio; Chun-su explains in the last scene that she’s someone he “knew from before.” But the way that both Chun-su and Hee-jung talk in the second half seems hesitant rather than an active attempt to right wrongs; Hee-jung even says that Chun-su speaks without thinking, and his line of questioning in the café, asking about her father who isn’t mentioned at all in the first half, is in many ways a less tactful way of speaking than anything before.

So it isn’t merely enough to say that Right Now, Wrong Then is the happier/kinder/wish-fulfillment version of Right Then, Wrong Now, but instead a depiction of alternate possibilities that happen to have a somewhat different outcome, like a less overt take on In Another Country. The thing that I forgot most was Young-sil — Seo Young-hwa with shorter hair, seemingly playing her pre-Hill of Freedom sage-like roles in the first half and her more overtly romantic Hill of Freedom persona in the second, considering her attraction to Chun-su — not only bringing one of her books, but also writing an inscription about how she agrees with what he said: discovering what’s hidden in the surface of one’s life is the only way to overcome with one’s fears. That close-up on the book, and what it says about the preceding 50 minutes and what’s to come, is as moving and mysterious to me as the ending of the second half of the film. Likewise, maybe it’s just Jeong’s brilliant performance — his only leading Hong role, and his more sickly appearance than other past Hong men makes him perfect for underplaying so that Kim can take center stage — but I’m much less inclined to see what he’s saying. Both his words about Kim’s painting — which has a similar tenor to but is much more detailed than Seong-nam’s assessment of Yoo-jeong’s drawings in Night and Day — and his parting words to Bo-ra — Go Ah-sung, the young girl in The Host, a connection which has always delighted me, as does her sheer joy at being pulled around a sledding rink — seem to come from a more genuine place than mere platitudes. Perhaps it’s just Jeong’s watery eyes as he looks at both the painting and Kim — we don’t see the former in the second part, maybe it’s the same painting or maybe not — but, even if he uses the same words as he does to describe his own films, I could see it equally as indicating a unity of spirit, an alignment of artistic sensibilities that feels just as genuine and touching to me as the more critical accusations of falling prey to comfort and conventions — this progression is the opposite of the reference letters in Our Sunhi.

To go back to those drinking scenes, I find their subtly different stagings equally instructive. The first one places Kim much closer to the camera than the second, while Jeong stays in roughly the same spot. This is generally in keeping with the more reflective or pensive spirit of the second half, first signaled in the further distance and diagonal view of their first meeting the second time around. But it also had a profound effect on how I saw the scene. Even though the viewer sees more of Jeong’s face, in the first half it’s almost as if he provides a mirror for the viewer and for Hong, collectively unable to take their eyes off of her and her gestures — for how drunk they get, and considering that they apparently were actually drinking during the shots, they consume less soju bottles than the average Hong drinking scene, a measly three — and the moment of her whispering to Jeong is unexpectedly spine-tingling. The further proximity in the second balances the view a little more, allowing the viewer to gravitate more towards Jeong crying. The same occurs in the painting scenes, where Kim sits right in front of the camera the first time and is roughly on the same line with Jeong the second time; that second shot has maybe the smallest but most impactful focus-pulling I’ve seen in Hong, where Kim stays in focus but Jeong gets slightly blurred depending on how it’s adjusted.

I’m definitely tempted to just list out the differences between the two parts: the lack of voiceover in the second part; the scenes with Bo-ra in the first half and Chun-su’s attraction to her; the pan up to a tree to open and close the first and last shot of the first half, which is absent from the second; the use of Gi Ju-bong as Won-ho, who gets his own little shots of smoking during the second half; the Q&A with Seong-gook (Yoo Joon-sang) which really doesn’t go as badly as Chun-su feels but which gets the priceless accusations of him being pretentious, ignorant, and unworthy of being a film critic. There’s also the metatextual nature of, for instance, Youn Yuh-jung as Deok-soo, returning for the last time, as a mother, essentially being the bridge between Jung Yu-mi and Kim Min-hee’s tenures; Kangwon Province is mentioned again as well. (I’m pretty sure one of Hong’s films isn’t playing at the end, though of course there is similar piano music.) I also hadn’t noticed before that the Buddhist bell rings during the last shot of Kim in the first half and during their first meeting in the second half, almost a kind of benediction of this new occurrence.

But to get back to perspective, both parts feel like two-way discoveries, with Chun-su and Hee-jung discovering each other over the course of their interactions, with little else to worry about. The nature of his visit (despite not being a vacation) and their both being strangers to each other engenders a lack of an overt goal to their interactions — like in Hill of Freedom, which to me now forms a neat trilogy of shifting perspectives with this and Yourself and Yours — with them feeling free to push and pull each other to different places, her especially taking initiative to go to the café gathering. If I had to pick one thing, I’d say that the first half is about Hee-jung discovering who Chun-su is, and the second half vice versa, but what makes Right Now, Wrong Then so remarkable is that both occur simultaneously, and that the development of both resets narratively, yet continues in the viewer’s mind, an endlessly generative process that profoundly moved me this time around.

To close, a few lines from their interactions really stuck with me, reminding me of other Hong films while also pointing the way forward. While there are extremely soju-fueled but charming declarations of love, including the found ring that Hee-jung is wearing at the end of the film, what registers even more is the gratitude, the way that they both say they will cherish their memory of this experience. It reminds me of a more positive spin on the second-to-last day of The Day He Arrives, where Seong-jun and Ye-jeon resolve to never see each other again but to always have fond memories; there is no such explicit promise here, but there’s an air of finality and wistfulness that, in light of the irresolution of before, feels genuinely happy. The relative formality of their conversation in the snow — startlingly played backwards in the trailer — is then transcended by Hee-jung taking off her glove and their bare hands touching, her words “thank you for everything” standing for so much unspoken and unacted upon. In the last conversation, they say they are glad to have gotten to know each other, and it’s that kind of intimacy, not necessarily sexual or romantic, that truly grabs me in the film; her vow to watch his films from now on functions in a similar manner, a reciprocation of his honest assessment of her paintings which reflect her loneliness and desire for comfort. In the last shot, Kim at last walks out by herself, into a future of infinite worlds possible; even if this were her only Hong though, it would be among his greatest.