Hong Sang-soo’s best films leave your retinas imprinted with a luminous clarity. His exacting compositions usually find the actors positioned, in groups of two or three, at the center of the orderly frame, the edges inscribed with the bright, whitish light that surrounds them. His films are built from rambling long takes, but the cuts that link them are crisp and decisive. Even in his widest shots, the eloquent arrangement of bodies subordinates geographical detail. In nearly every one of his films, a protagonist travels from Seoul to somewhere else, but Hong is not particularly concerned with place. Wherever his characters go, be it Paris or a Korean resort town, they do the same things: arrange themselves in complicated love triangles, treat others poorly, drink too much, then treat each other even worse. His deliberately artificial camera movements—long pans back and forth, and half-motivated zooms, mostly—treat real space the way a camera usually approaches a photograph or a painting: flattening it, drawing horizontal and diagonal lines to map its elements. He is concerned with atmosphere in the literal sense: the particular qualities of light and air in the types of spaces to which he obsessively returns: beaches, restaurants, apartments.
Hong has crafted a self-conscious directorial style, developing it in bursts as abrupt as his zooms, adding or subtracting a new gesture with each film. An upcoming five-film retrospective sampler at the Museum of the Moving Image, running March 17 – 23, begins with The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996), his first feature, which demonstrates this style’s birth: The long takes, the blocking, and the narrative preoccupations are in place, but here they mingle with other common maneuvers, like traveling shots and fades, that he would later purify away. The film’s multiple, eventually interweaving storylines are a crude preview of the relentless narrative structural play that has become Hong’s signature. He breaks his stories into discrete units whose relation to one another is often in question, courting a bewilderment at odds with the crystalline images. The series’ two best films illustrate the poles of Hong’s narrative complexity; Night and Day’s (2008) straightforward diary format contrasts with the chronologically jumbled short films that make up Oki’s Movie (2010). The final two—Woman on the Beach (2006) and Like You Know It All (2009)—are iterations of his favorite gambit: the imperfectly mirrored diptych.
The Moving Image series skips over the 10 years between The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well and Woman on the Beach during which Hong refined this method; each of the five films he made in this period is more self-assured and eccentric than the last. But his subject has remained the same since the beginning: destructive romantic entanglements between vicious, self-involved men who feel entitled to every last ounce of their desire and the withdrawn, capricious, or self-loathing women drawn into their orbit. In The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, the doomed romances end in tragedy, but over the years Hong’s films became funnier and talkier—Woman on the Beach, the most directly comedic of his movies, is the apogee of this development—and he now lets them play out as quicksand comedies of errors. The men are always either filmmakers of marginal popular success, like Hong, or similarly compromised practitioners of some surrogate art—a writer in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, a painter in Night and Day. They are also hard drinkers and womanizers, as Hong is widely rumored to be.
Hong’s fixation on this type and his seemingly compulsive autobiographical shadings have lead commentators and viewers to treat him as a self-excoriating critic of the male psyche. There is much to be said about Hong’s complicated authorial presence, but the films do not act like self-revealing psychological explorations. The men are caricatures and the women, with a few notable exceptions, are ciphers, their motivations as opaque as the men’s are utterly transparent. The behavior that critics euphemistically attribute to “male vanity” ranges from rape (Like You Know It All  and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors ) and murder (The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well) to pathetic wheedling, moping self-pity, and bald projection (take your pick). While it is apparent that Hong addresses particularly Korean gender relations (“Sorry, but you’re actually just another Korean man,” Mun-suk tells Jung-rae in Woman on the Beach), it is difficult to parse the implications from this distant vantage. The films are implicitly critical to the extent that they acknowledge the persistence and embeddedness of male privilege, but this is not their subject. Hong does not expose anything in particular about the viciousness of men or the suffering of women—and he offers little room to imagine the world differently. Rather he takes these things for granted, unpleasant facts of life that serve as the perfect catalysts for the unpredictable, prismatic narratives he favors, the source of a million different unintended consequences for him to chase down. Individual scenes progress in the same explosive fashion. Hong’s unwavering long takes force his actors to register with their bodies the contortions of men and women at war with one another: the coiled snake volatility of a very drunk person, the violent, multi-directional rage of a loser rejected, the tremble of a woman buckling under her second-to-last straw, the ungainly physical exertion of terrible sex.
The narrative interventions impose an order on these unruly lives, but it’s an irrational one. In the final, titular segment of Oki’s Movie, the woman at the film’s center narrates a point-by-point comparison of dates with a fellow film student and the professor competing with him for her affection. “The guilt and exhilaration of walking one path with two men is why I made this movie,” she says. “To see the two experiences side by side.” The comparison reveals scores of small differences between the particular men, but gives no hint of a larger meaning. It’s the “guilt and exhilaration” that’s key. Hong’s repetition and variation of moments charged with possibility—doubling, tripling, or quadrupling whole stories or their individual elements—typically alters no more than the superficial details of their outcomes. In such a fatalistic world, the endless re-creations can only delay the inevitable. Hong returns his characters to those moments again and again, allowing them to bask in their potential once more before reliving the agony of their foreclosure.
Though Hong’s narrative structural play is rooted in the medium’s particularities, there are no real film historical lessons to be taken from his innovations, and they are too idiosyncratic to clear a way forward. If Hong is a formalist, another cliché attached to him like a barnacle, his is a garden-path formalism, leading nowhere. The point is once again to withhold meaning indefinitely, this time for the viewer. This too is the purpose of Hong’s ceaseless production of empty symbols—the fruit of the pans and zooms, like the regurgitated octopus tentacles in Oki’s Movie, or the bird that falls on Sung-nam in Night and Day, that almost always make for the best moments in his films, and which force the films to swerve from their relentless march to some gestalt. Hong keeps our eyes searching every inch of the pristine frame, our brains churning through the endless possible connections, never reaching a conclusion, glued to the onscreen present.
For more information on the series visit: movingimage.us.