Hong Sang Soo - An Appreciation
I have recently been going through all of Hong Sang-Soo’s work. I will also be doing a Frame by Frame soon of Oki’s Movie, so now seemed a good time to write about my thoughts on his work.
If you have ever heard of Hong Sang Soo, you may know him vaguely as a Korean auteur who is not quite as famous as other, more internationally recognized directors: Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), Bong Joon ho (The Host) or even Kim Ki-Duk (3-Iron). Actually, Hong Sang Soo is not widely seen even in his own country, and he is probably most notorious for leaving his wife for actress Kim Min Hee (The Handmaiden), which is ironic since Hong is such an unassuming man in person.
If you have ever watched one of his films completely unprepared, you may have been bored for long stretches and then shocked or just plain uncomfortable. His films tend to have long stretches of mundane, awkward conversation that will often erupt into loud, angry arguments and shows of bravado, often over food and lots and lots of booze.
If you were to hear the plot descriptions of many of his films, you would think that he was making the same movie over and over again with minor differences in names, circumstances and situations. Many of his films are episodic with narratives that mirror each other. Love triangles are a common occurrence in his film, as well as illicit affairs and lots of wounded male pride.
It may be helpful to see Hong Sang-Soo’s work as a rebuke to obvious, manipulative entertainment, which, while certainly not limited to Korea, is rampant in Korean culture. I can and will go on in length about this particular trend in the future, but for now, I want to talk about what I see as important and marvelous about his work.
Few directors have ever been so observant about toxic masculinity as Hong has been. Men are in power all over the world, so it rarely occurs to them to question their status quo in terms of their gender. His men are weak, vile, overbearing creatures driven by their easily wounded pride. Their worst behavior can be unleashed with a mere dinner accompanied with liberal amounts of soju. If you think the behavior of the men in this film is an exaggeration, it is only slightly so. And before you judge all Korean men this way, just remember that people like Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump lead or have led entire countries.
His attention to language and communication transcends country and culture. Hong will get up very early in the morning to write the lines for that day, leaving the actors very little time to rehearse. While the results can be wildly varied, at their best, the actors can give performances of startling naturalism and great emotional impact.
He is a master of structure. Hong loves narratives that fold in on themselves, and he delights in teasing out similarities between characters. He never tires of observing that people are all creatures of habit and that they often will act in a predictable manner, even if it means repeating their mistakes. While it can be depressing seeing someone make the same mistake over and over again, Hong manages to mine great insight and humor from these situations as well.
If you want to dive into his work, I will recommend these five for you to get started with. They are his most accessible work both literally (they are available for rent or purchase or are free to stream) and figuratively. Despite their accessibility, it may still take a while before you fully adjust to his pace and idiosyncrasies. It is worth it though.
1. Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors – The structure is fairly easy to follow and features an excellent performance by one of his best leading ladies (Lee Eun-ju).
2. Like You Know It All – This film gives some satirical insight into the film festival circuit and also has one of his most bizarre sideplots.
3. Oki’s Movie – Hong’s most playful film with a fantastically cutting narrative by the female protagonist (a rarity in Hong’s oeuvre).
4. HaHaHa – Perhaps his most coherent and ambitious film, chock full of story and vignettes that do not feel out of place or confuse the emotional arc of the film's two main characters.
5. In Another Country - Isabelle Huppert makes this movie. She know her role as a muse, yet she does not overwhelm the film with her presence, choosing rather to underplay and simply live within her narratives.