Three's company: Hong Sang Soo's 'Woman on the Beach' plays the SFFS Screen at Sundance Kabuki beginning Fri/20. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Hong Sang Soo on the SFFS Screen

Adam Hartzell June 18, 2008

For South Korean director Hong Sang Soo, it’s the road often traveled that makes all the difference. Where Hong’s films frequently go is toward dichotomies—"life" vs. "death," "clean" vs. "unclean"—while dancing around the ambivalent partners of intimacy and isolation. Hong’s films are full of come-hither gestures followed by bodies retreating once the fleeting desire is consummated, yet this consummation never brings satiation. Hong’s characters always wander away, as if slightly fearful or disgusted following attainment of what they thought they wanted. Those of us who appreciate Hong’s films know not to expect resolution. Fulfillment comes in the delayed gratification that happens days later as your mind meanders along the paths of Hong’s characters realizing the significance of something as everyday as the accidental gifting of an umbrella or a scarf given to a sick child only to be taken back soon after.

Born in Seoul, South Korea in 1960, Hong studied at Chungang University and then traveled to the United States where he received a BFA at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now this Bay-Area institution is known simple as the California College of the Arts) and an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. He also studied at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris before acquiring a job at the South Korean TV station SBS. While there, he worked on the script for his first film, The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996). The structure of the narrative of The Day a Pig Fell into the Well casts a wider web than his future films, following four characters rather than what will become his standard of focusing on only two characters, but it lays the groundwork for the ennui of men in privileged class positions and the women who briefly settle for them. When it was released in 1996 he was immediately recognized as a leading South Korean director in what would eventually be designated a "Korean New Wave". (For those who have become fans of actor Song Kang-ho after seeing him play the haphazard father in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, his film debut was his minor role in this film.) Hong would eventually win awards at Rotterdam and Vancouver for this debut.

His next film, The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), would receive an Un Certain Regard Special Mention at Cannes. This film took the well-tested indie film plot of following two characters whose enmeshed lives are slowly realized. The two stories about one story involve an affair between a married college professor and his student. The narrative doesn’t illuminate facts as it does wider truths about characters who put their lives in danger of serious physical and emotional falls.

A venture in black and white would follow with Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000). (The English title is a reference to an artwork by Duchamp since non-Korean speakers would miss the double-entendre intended in the Korean title, Oh, Soojung!.) Not the he-said/she-said plot it seems to be at first, this story of the easily shattered perspectives of a wealthy art gallery owner and a woman trying to position herself in the film industry leads to moments of discomfort mixed with humor, particularly a scene of mistaken exclamation during a moment of heated passion that is classic Hong.

Turning Gate
(2002) finds an actor humiliated after he’s passed up for a part when the director and funders determine he is box-office poison. When a friend calls inviting him to take a train trip out to see him in order for that friend to impress a woman he’s interested in, our actor heads out to romance that same woman in order to briefly salve his wounded ego. But this ego is unsalvageable, because once tiring of her, he returns to the train to meet another woman who claims to have met him before. When she leaves for her stop, a delayed reaction leads him to stalk this new woman and strike up a brief affair with her as well. Throughout this film, dialogue is taken, as if a DJ engaging in cinematic sampling, cutting and pasting from one context to another, leading us to question the sincerity of later words, and then reflecting on the now revealed insincerity of the same lines used previously in the film. Always one to critique the futility and impotency of the male gaze, Turning Gate has Hong’s arguably funniest scene in which our actor character is caught staring at the legs of a woman in a restaurant.

Or perhaps the funniest scene from a Hong film is another critical look at the male gaze in Woman Is the Future of Man (2004). Here our two male characters are each caught staring at an obviously discomforted woman outside of a Chinese restaurant in between their similar efforts to bed the same Chinese waitress. Their replaceable pick-up lines consist of ‘I’m a painter in need of a model’ versus ‘I’m a director in need of an actress’. In this film, the first of Hong’s to be in competition at Cannes for the Palm D’Or, the film director has returned home from the States and met up with his art professor friend and they both desire a rekindling of a faint female flame from their past.

Hong would compete at Cannes again with his next film, Tale of Cinema (2005). Tale of Cinema messes with the audience a little bit because it begins as a short film within a larger film where run-ins rinse and repeat until the actress from the film within the film voices that she’s finally had enough of these antics and sends our male protagonist off as if he’s about to step into another Hong film within a film, . . . or across films.

Seven films later and three screenings at Cannes, and a retrospective of his work at 2007’s San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival, San Franciscans will get their first official theatre release of a Hong film when (2006) reaches our shores on June 20, screening at the Sundance Kabuki theatre care of our friends at the San Francisco Film Society.Woman on the Beach

Woman on the Beach
follows film director Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) as he travels to South Korea’s west coast in order to jolt away his writer’s block. He convinces his set designer Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo) to sojourn along with him, but only after Chang-wook negotiates permission to bring the woman he believes is his girlfriend, Moon-sook. (Moon-sook is played by Ko Hyeon-jeong, a respected actress who came out of retirement to make Woman on the Beach.) We learn, from Moon-sook, that Chang-wook’s romantic claim on Moon-sook is a mistaken assumption on his part. Joong-rae sees this as an opportunity to move in on Moon-sook, an opportunity she was hoping for. Yet the Hong film tropes continue, because they will soon be running away as tentatively as they ran into each other’s arms. The film slowly builds doubt in the spectator of all the characters, Joong-rae’s sincerity is questioned, Chang-wook’s knowledge of self is challenged, and Moon-sook’s decisiveness reveals tentative wavering.

Woman on the Beach
is a wonderful introduction to Hong’s films, partly because of the subtle comedy that Hong peppers about. The height of Hong’s comedy occurs when Joong-rae attempts to explain his ideas of the mind with diagrams that slowly spirograph to absurd, new-age heights.

Considering all that’s repeated in Hong’s oeuvre, it is Moon-sook’s character which demonstrates a thankful divergent fork in the road of Hong’s repeated paths. In conversations I’ve had with Hong, he’s made it very clear to me that he is not trying to make any specific political points. Still however unintentional, he has made an ironically feminist film because Moon-sook’s character is provided ample opportunity to be as equally pathetic as Hong’s male characters. As Joong-rae cannot let go of the fact that Moon-sook has slept with German men, Moon-sook cannot let go of the cultural baggage of superstition regarding how it is bad luck to be walked over by another person, as Joong-rae does to her in order to hide a tryst with another woman. Other women characters in Hong’s films have had as much screen time as the men, but none has exhibited the level of agency as Moon-sook in Woman on the Beach. It’s just that the agency she exhibits is often failed agency. This would be sexist if it weren’t for Joong-rae’s equally failing agency. Moon-sook and Joong-rae provide parallel posturing of a decisive self that each subside into paralyzing indecision. In this way, Hong’s films don’t inspire us as much as they provide counter-narratives of how not to live our emotional and intellectual lives.