The Discreet Charm of Hong Sang-soo

On the Beach at Night Alone

a film directed by Hong Sang-soo

The Day After

a film directed by Hong Sang-soo
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Hong Sang-soo and Kim Min-hee, Locarno, Switzerland, August 2015

The 2017 New York Film Festival featured two new films by the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After. Such a double honor has been reserved in the past for only the most important directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Hong actually directed a third film in 2017, Claire’s Camera, which the festival’s organizers also liked but reluctantly turned down, I was told, because one filmmaker taking three slots would be unseemly.

Such prolific output is noteworthy in its own right, but the consistently high level of Hong’s films makes it even more remarkable. Since 1996, he has made twenty-two features, at least half of which have premiered at the New York Film Festival, and he is routinely included in the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals. If one were to ask international critics and festival programmers whom they consider the best filmmakers working today, Hong would undoubtedly rank high. He is, however, virtually unknown to American audiences, because so few of his films have received commercial distribution here, and perhaps also because of Americans’ resistance to subtitled movies and even to learning the names of non-European foreign auteurs. (The same lack of name recognition in the US applies to such unequivocally major directors as Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami and Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien.)

For all his appearances at Cannes, Hong has never won a Palme d’Or. The reason, I think, is that despite their pleasurable, engrossing nature, each of his films gives the impression of being rather slight—intentionally so. Hong eschews the self-important and ostentatiously ambitious, preferring instead to build delicate cinematic structures out of seemingly offhand, casually playful, sardonic observations. This modesty is partly a function of his production methods, low budgets being a tradeoff for maximum freedom.

Hong, born in Seoul in 1961, studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts and then got a master’s degree at the Chicago Art Institute. A professor at a Seoul university, he gets free rent there for his company (two employees) and relies on students as interns; he shoots on location without building sets and is able to hold the costs of a feature film down to about $100,000. Some of his films, like the delightful Oki’s Movie (2010)—which moves back and forth in time, relating a love triangle between two film students and their professor in a series of four quick sketches—are all the more charming and fresh for their unassuming nature. Yourself and Yours (2016) is about a man who is still in love with his ex-girlfriend and refuses to believe the rumors of her promiscuity, preferring to think there are two women in town who look exactly alike—and he may be right. As Martin Scorsese put it, in Hong’s films “everything…

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