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 kind of starts unassumingly—but then things unpeel like an orange.” The pleasures are additive: if you see one of his movies, you are apt to be amused but may think “Is that all?”; see five, six, or ten of them and you are likely to be hooked forever, a happy captive of Hong’s world.
What are that world’s common elements? A good deal of drinking, eating, passive-aggressive miscommunication, romantic misalliances, and male competitiveness. The men tend to be loners, doggy-lustful yet timid seducers, alternating between commitment-aversion and needy clinging. Often they are film directors teaching in the academy and hitting on attractive female students. The women, ambitious to become actresses or filmmakers themselves, are typically looking for a mentor, a letter of recommendation, or a way to gain entry into the industry. So the power games begin.
All Hong’s films are drawn from his original screenplays, and his dialogues are pointed and penetrating. But he does not prepare scripts in advance. In fact he limits preparation time (normally an elaborate process) to a minimum, usually scouting locations just a few weeks before filming. When he’s ready to shoot, he calls together the crew and cast a day or two before. He writes the dialogues for each day’s shoot in the morning, starting at four AM. By nine or ten he is usually done writing and gives the actors their lines to memorize, allowing forty minutes or at most an hour for them to do so. (The dialogues may appear improvised, but as with John Cassavetes’s films, the lines have all been scripted by the director.)
It is worth remembering that Godard often worked in a similar fashion, composing the day’s script in a car on the way to the set, borrowing lines from a newspaper, the radio, or a book at hand, and even whispering lines into the earpieces of his actors. Hong is not a collagist like Godard, being much more invested in the realistic situations and psychological complexities of his characters, but his reasons for working this way are perhaps analogous: to trick himself into coming up with something spontaneous and unconventional, putting pressure on his unconscious to come through at the last moment while relying on his observational antennae to be preternaturally, opportunistically attuned to the immediate surroundings and his cast and crews’ off-camera behaviors. Keeping the actors in the dark is also a way to draw more natural performances from them: they have no time for their lines to grow stale through overpreparation. Nor can they overthink their characters’ motivations, since Hong refuses to provide them with background about their characters’ past. They are obliged to be in the moment. The moment, indeed, as it passes second by second, is what you are most aware of in watching a Hong film. Time is distended, and the experience of living is allowed to bloom.
The paradox is that Hong is so keen on slipping the noose of intention, inviting chance and impromptu impulse, while on the other hand imposing certain restrictions that limit the amount of variation from film to film. For instance, there is his habit of working with similar character types from the same milieu, which he explains as follows:
It’s convenient. It’s not that important that they are directors of films…. I just know more about them. I don’t have this need to go to different professions, different types of characters…. My temperament is to work with the things I know already, and then find new things…. I don’t want to work with or make films about a plane pilot, if I try to describe him maybe I will be very stereotypical.
Surely no one else has made as many pictures set in film schools or focused so relentlessly on the power dynamics between teacher and student, the envy and competitiveness between one promising male student and another, or the chagrin that can arise between a director and his flunky. Lest we leap to the assumption that Hong is simply channeling his own autobiography, there is his statement above that he simply knows more about film directors, not that he is the only one on which he bases his scripts.
Nevertheless, all this has rendered Hong susceptible to the charge that he is making the same film over and over. It’s an interesting if faulty accusation, especially since the same was said at times about Yasujiro Ozu, Éric Rohmer, and Woody Allen. Hong has been called “the Korean Woody Allen,” as much to associate him with a more familiar brand—comedies about rationalizing males who receive a comeuppance—as for any real resemblance. There are funny touches in every Hong film, but I would not necessarily classify them as comedies. They seem more to be psychological investigations about the difficulty of romantic relationships, closer to the Rohmer prototype.
Hong says he appreciates the compliment of this comparison and admires Rohmer, but does not see much similarity between them, beyond the fact that both use extensive dialogues and have developed low-budget strategies. I do see more of a kinship, especially considering how many of his films start with a protagonist on vacation at loose ends, recalling the vexed heroine in Summer (Le Rayon Vert, 1986) or the narrator-antihero of Claire’s Knee (1970). Hong would probably also concur with Rohmer’s disclaimer: “You should never think of me as an apologist for my male character, even (or especially) when he is being his own apologist. On the contrary, the men in my films are not meant to be particularly sympathetic characters.” Both filmmakers are tireless analysts of male self-ignorance, immaturity, and cowardice.
Hong is pretty much alone working in this vein in South Korean cinema, which mostly produces technically polished genre pictures featuring crime, violence, sci-fi fantasy, sex, or politics. He stays away from politics and violence, neither of which seems to interest him, and though his earlier movies sometimes had steamy sex scenes, he has not included one in many years.
Visually, his films are handsomely if simply photographed with a functional priority placed on the words spoken by the actors. There may be cutaways to images of natural beauty but there are no elaborately choreographed crane or dolly shots. In dialogue scenes between a man and a woman meeting for the first time or with a group at a bar, he will often hold the camera on the speakers for long periods without changing the framing. Sometimes he will pan from one speaker to the other, just to vary the shot.
From his sixth film on, he began using a zoom lens, which raised some cinephiles’ ire (zooms were thought by purists to be vulgar technological shortcuts, performing an act that the human eye could not). Explaining his preference for the zoom, Hong told an interviewer: “I just felt one day that I would like to get closer to the actors without cutting the shot. By doing it I discovered that I could create a special rhythm in continuity. And it’s so easy. I just kept doing it ever since. I didn’t want to make it my trademark.” He may also be employing the zoom to thumb his nose at art cinema’s austere conventions while staying true to his unfussy, offhand manner.
The area where Hong most experiments cinematically is in his handling of narrative structure. He will frequently break the film into two or three parts, each section set in a different time frame or doubling back on itself. Thus, though his filmic style may be naturalistic, you are often suddenly made aware, through chapter headings or self-reflexive shifts in points of view, that you are watching a construct, a movie whose realism Hong feels free to undercut at any moment. Tale of Cinema (2005) has a tricky Moebius-strip structure that follows an Underground Man–like filmmaker envious of the short film of a former classmate, and includes scenes from that film. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013) is a forlorn, heartbreaking narrative told in diary entries, flashbacks, and dreams. The exquisite Hill of Freedom (2014) follows a Japanese tourist trying to reconnect with a former girlfriend who has disappeared, by hanging out in a coffee shop hoping to spot her.
An even purer example might be Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), the first half of which is taken up by an encounter between a filmmaker in the provinces showing one of his films and a pretty artist whom he seeks to impress, though he manages to keep putting his foot in his mouth, offending her by his false praise of her artwork and unconscious sexism. In the second part, we see the same action played out but with subtle differences: this time the man adjusts his level of honesty, with better results. (Subtle, too, are the slight variations in camera placement, which reinforce the shift from the man’s subjective viewpoint to the woman’s autonomous character.) In neither part do the two end up going to bed, but the result is a demonstration of the choices we make at every second to be merely presentational or more authentic—one of Hong’s main themes.
The woman painter in Right Now, Wrong Then is played by Kim Min-hee, a prominent South Korean actress (well known for films such as Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden, 2016) who has frequently been cast by Hong in his recent films. She has also had an affair with Hong, who is married, which provided much scandalous fodder for the South Korean tabloids. Hong’s (defiant? self-mocking?) response was to make On the Beach at Night Alone, starring Kim as an actress named Younghee who has had an affair with a married film director, and who, for the duration of the picture, is shown trying to console herself and waiting for the lover to resurface. In doing so, Hong was essentially inviting his national audience to read the film as an autobiographical confession, and to judge him severely, while being fully aware of the ways in which it is a work of fictional imagination—not least because it enters so deeply and sympathetically into the woman’s point of view.
The film begins in Hamburg, Germany, where Younghee is taking some time off and distracting herself from heartbreak, wondering if she should move permanently to Germany. She has just met another Korean woman and they are hanging out together, comparing notes on life and love. The other woman, who is rather plain-looking, states that she is not given to passionate romance because she lacks “desire.” Obviously she also envies Younghee her beauty and healthy libido, but neither mentions that. Younghee, admitting that she has played around a lot, insists that she doesn’t care anymore whether her lover will join her in Hamburg as he has promised or not; what will be will be. She seems to be fooling herself.
The second part moves to South Korea, where Younghee runs into some acquaintances from her past while visiting a small city. (Getting away from Seoul, the capital of ambition, and trying to find contentment in a less hurried corner of Korea is a frequently expressed if disabused hope of Hong’s characters.) These acquaintances, deferential to her as a successful actress, are mostly curious about the rumors of her relationship with the film director and invite her to dine with them. She regards them as losers who are stuck in a provincial rut. Over the course of a meal she becomes more and more aggressively rude, telling one man that he is incapable of loving, and moreover they all lack the “qualifications to love.”
In Hong’s films, awkward conversational standstills are suddenly broken when the characters start drinking. Alcohol is necessary to advance the plot, releasing these otherwise polite, repressed middle-class South Koreans to express their desires, resentments, wild guesses, or acute insights about one another. We see a less likable side of Younghee as she turns on her friends with haughty superiority. Bragging about having slept with several German men abroad, asserting that they are bigger down below than Korean men, she impatiently declares, “Men are idiots!” and starts making out with the woman closest to her.
In the last part of the film, she repairs with a few of these same companions to a beach town. As they debate in their fancy hotel suite what to eat, a window-washer is manically scrubbing away on the other side of the glass, a characteristically zany, surrealist touch on Hong’s part. Surreal, too, is the dream sequence (which we initially assume is real) where she fantasizes about a reconciliation with her director-lover, who keeps sloppily telling her how pretty she is, then reads from a Chekhov story about love. But ultimately, to the grave accompaniment of a Schubert passage that keeps recurring, she is left “on the beach at night alone.” (The title comes from a Walt Whitman poem.) Meanwhile we have spent time in the company of a singularly vivacious, strong-willed female character. Kim’s performance—fierce, quicksilver, and riveting—deservedly won her a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Kim appears again in The Day After, this time playing a decorous, proper young woman interested in writing who goes to work for a book publisher and respected critic played by Kwon Hae-hyo. He is torn between his ex-mistress and his wife, who flies into a jealous rage when she discovers a love letter. The Day After begins in a somewhat mystifying manner, as Hong intercuts between his protagonist’s guilty-husband present tense and his past adulterous affair, the man dressed so differently in the past and present that it isn’t even clear if it is the same person. Soon, the new office worker (Kim) appears on the scene, and he can’t keep from flirting with her. The three women converge on the increasingly hapless, bemused publisher, who finds himself less and less in control of his destiny. The wife, mistaking the new worker for her husband’s mistress, slaps her around and refuses to acknowledge her error.
Eventually the confusion sorts itself out, and the film builds to an explosive confrontation. Hong pushes the dramatic tension in ways that could seem melodramatic but instead play as sly, ironic farce. Unhappiness being a guarantee, the hysteria of the characters trying to flee that conclusion seems a waste of time. As though aware of that futility, they take a break from anguish to order Chinese takeout. The last shot in the movie shows the delivery man’s arrival, a sort of consoling presence.
The superb cinematography in both films is the work of Kim Hyung-koo. Whereas the color photography in On the Beach at Night Alone looks sun-kissed and open-air, The Day After is shot beautifully in black and white, in grimly gray, snowy conditions that underscore the trapped, bleak situation of the publisher. In the final scene, the office worker, who had lasted only one day at the job before quitting, returns some months later to congratulate the publisher on winning a prize for his criticism, and the publisher gives her a parting gift, a new translation of a Soseki book, And Then. Hong likes to drop literary references casually, as we can gather from his quotations of Whitman and Chekhov in On the Beach at Night Alone. In The Day After, the choice of a novel by the great Japanese author is particularly significant, since Soseki also was accused of writing the same book over and over and specialized in dissecting his male protagonists’ isolating egotism.
Solipsism would seem to be the ultimate source of Hong’s characters’ unhappiness. As he stated onstage at the New York Film Festival, each of us operates on a different plane of reality, and these planes rarely align so as to bring about knowing what the other is feeling. One is reminded of Emerson’s statement in his notebook: “Man is insular, and cannot be touched. Every man is an infinitely repellent orb.”
A depressing notion. Yet underneath the misbegotten behavior in Hong’s films, the doomed attempts to free oneself through alcohol and sexual affairs, I sense another quest, which might be called spiritual. It enters in the silences and gaps that filter into moments when his characters are at a loss. The protagonist in On the Beach at Night Alone startles her friend by bowing and kissing the ground before crossing a bridge in Hamburg. The office worker in The Day After demands of her boss, “Why are you living?” She scoffs at his inability to answer and confesses that she herself believes in God, which she knows will cause her to lose credit in the eyes of the sophisticated literary crowd that she aspires to join.
Kim Min-hee may be Hong’s muse, as Anna Karina was for Godard or Monica Vitti for Michelangelo Antonioni, but in addition he seems to be exploring through her roles a piece of his own transcendental yearning. Hong titled an early film On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002), about a man at a crossroads, eerily recalling another Soseki novel, The Gate. In the film, someone goes off to a Buddhist retreat, only to realize at the end of his visit that the hoped-for release didn’t work for him. Perhaps, Hong is saying, one’s spiritual hungers cannot be appeased any more than one’s carnal appetites can, but that does not prevent one from trying.
Finally, what is one to make of the admission Hong made recently in New York that the movie that made him want to become a filmmaker was Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951)? There is little of Bresson’s Jansenist severity in Hong’s droll, melancholy rondos, but perhaps there is something of the same faith that in confronting unyielding reality head-on, we can begin to surmise a larger, more hidden truth or possibility of grace.