A feeble contribution to the Oh! Soojung blogathon

by Philip Gowman on 21 March, 2007

in Film reviews and comment | Hong Sang-soo

Today is the Virgin Stripped Bare blogathon, when anyone who cares about the work of Hong Sang-soo is meant to be writing about his third film — to coincide with a screening of the film in the San Francisco Bay area as part of a retrospective. A splendid idea, provided you have anything to say about Hong. As I’m a fan of Hong in theory rather than in practice (I’m afraid I find watching his films a bit of a chore), I was hoping someone would step into the breach and provide some incisive commentary. But no-one responded to my request for assistance (or offer of a platform), so I was landed with the task myself.

Hong retrospectives as an index of cultural broad-mindedness?

I did a bit of googling to find out what Hong retrospectives there have been other than the current one in San Francisco. These are the ones I found. I’m sure there are others:

  • California, UC Irvine, October 2002
  • Paris, November 2002
  • New York, October 2003 (with a catch-up on more recent films in April 2007)
  • Madrid, February 2007

Note that the UK isn’t included on the list. There’s a certain element in the UK which sneers at our transatlantic cousins, saying that they can’t cope with foreign films because they don’t like reading subtitles. They can only cope with the mass-produced drivel that comes out of the Hollywood studios, we superior Brits like to think. Well, I don’t know about the statistics, but in absolute numbers there must be a helluva lot more people interested in world film in the US than in the UK, because otherwise there wouldn’t be all those festivals [1].

USA 3, UK 0. There’s never been a Hong retrospective in the UK as far as I’m aware. And maybe us Brits aren’t cut out to like Hong’s films. In general, we have trouble with “art films”. There’s a certain anti-intellectualism here which means that films in which nothing happens don’t do very well. Which is why, I guess, Hong goes down quite well in France, where intellectuals are held in much higher regard and where people relish juggling with abstract concepts [2].

Yes, we do get the occasional screening. The London Film Festival in 2004 and 2005 featured Woman is the Future of Man and A Tale of Cinema respectively [3]. But while the cognoscenti appreciate his work, that appreciation has yet to filter out in the same way that, for example, people know about Kim Ki-duk. And by that I mean that while Tartan are bringing out most of Kim’s oeuvre on DVD, you can only get Hong on Region 3.

The person I know who is most enthusiastic about Hong is actually Chinese. He’s a professor of film studies in Beijing, and was enthusiastic enough about Hong to want to translate Adam Hartzell’s article on unsexy sex into Mandarin for the benefit of his pupils. I never found out whether he got round to that. But he was not enthusiastic enough to respond to my suggestion that he contribute to this blogathon. One thing he said to me when trying to explain the attraction is that there’s something in Hong’s films which is uniquely Asian. But because I’m not Asian myself I’m not quite sure what it is.

You’ll see I’ve got this far and not really talked about the film at all. Well, when I heard about this blogathon, courtesy of Adam’s post at koreanfilm.org, I thought to myself “even if I don’t write anything, I might as well watch the film again so that I know what the other bloggers are talking about on 21 March”. But when no-one showed any interest in contributing a post to this site I thought, I’d better think of an “angle” fast.

Soojung as Rashomon?

I thought of cataloguing the differences between the two versions of the story (I sat through the film taking very careful notes); but I decided that there wasn’t a “true” version of the story: the two strands are so radically different in parts that it can’t be Hong’s intention that there is a single truth out there. There isn’t any way of putting together the different viewpoints to get to what “really” happened. It wasn’t both Jaehoon and Youngsoo that invited Soojung up the dark alleyway with the promise that there was something “funny” up there. Jaehoon “thought” it was him; and Soojung “thought” it was Youngsoo. Not so much slightly different viewpoints as radically different parallel universes. At the opposite extreme, some of the differences are so trivial that you wonder why Hong put them in. Who cares whether it was a fork or a chopstick which dropped to the floor?

So the Rashomon angle was a non-starter. Too big and too small at the same time.

The prominence of Korean male tongue muscles

So, because I’m a fan of Adam’s article “unsexy sex” I thought there might be a story to be written there [4]. Certainly none of the romantic encounters in Virgin Stripped Bare are terribly enthralling. In fact the first version of this post was entitled, “Girls, would you date a Korean guy?” It focussed on the second kiss between Soojung and Jaehoon (the first was so brutal as to be almost a rape).

The kiss from Oh Soojung

When I watched the film this time round, I thought I heard some rather gross slurping noises as the loving couple had their first decent snog. (And hey, what a romantic follow-up piece of dialogue: “That was nice” says Soojung politely. “You enjoyed it?” asks the playboy, comically seeking for his kissing prowess to be re-affirmed). What I also noticed was the muscle at the root of Jaehoon’s tongue straining itself quite energetically during the clinch (just about visible above), and I thought to myself: that’s one aggressive kisser. How can Soojung possibly claim to have enjoyed that particular game of tonsil tennis? She must feel raw inside [5].

I was reminded of the first kiss between J and Y in Jang Sun-woo’s Lies (거짓말). So my draft post proposed the motion that Korean men can’t kiss [6]. It was a jokey post, because I know there are some Korean films out there with some very involving romantic scenes [7].

But then I revisited Lies, and discovered that while the kiss was pretty mechanical and, it has to be said, jolly thorough, actually what followed was surprisingly passionate and that maybe therefore the kiss hadn’t been so robotic after all. In one respect though, my memory didn’t fail me. J too had some pretty hyperactive tongue muscles in his throat.

I returned to the scene in Virgin Stripped Bare, and this time round the slurping noises weren’t so noticeable. In fact, I really had to listen out for them. What was happening to my memory? I fast-forwarded to the next kiss. No slurping, but the leather banquette was making some great squelchy farting noises which I hadn’t noticed before.

So the “bad kissing” angle was rapidly evaporating because the whole idea wouldn’t stay still. I nevertheless agree with Adam’s point that no matter how much one is embarrassed about one’s own amorous escapades, at least (one hopes) they’re not as bad as those you see in a Hong Sang-soo film.

A fumbling conclusion

Where does all this leave this rambling post? Appropriately enough, without a satisfying climax. I’ve got nothing to write about, but yet this is one of my longest posts, with the most convoluted footnotes, ever. I’ve said rather too frequently that I don’t particularly enjoy watching Hong’s films. Even Hong’s most ardent admirers can’t claim that a Hong film gives the same buzz as watching a Bong Joon-ho. But yet… They kind of grow on you. You notice something different each time you revisit them. They have an elusive quality which makes you want to get to the bottom of them.

Maybe they do contain a uniquely Asian viewpoint. And maybe if I continue revisiting them I’ll find out what that is.

Links:

Blogathon participants:

  1. Actually, as an aside, I’d be interested in the demographic breakdown of the audience at these retrospectives. Clearly the US has significant concentrations of Koreans in the Bay and Tri-state areas, which maybe is one reason why the festivals are there. But I’m going to ask a controversial question here: how many Koreans do you know, particularly diaspora Koreans, who are interested in their own culture?[back]
  2. In my googling odyssey in search of Hong I came across an article in Positif called Hong Sang-Soo: La theorie du paquet de cigarettes. Only the French could theorise about a fag packet[back]
  3. My abiding memory of the former screening is that the seats were uncomfortable. I know a fellow koreanfilm.org forumer got bored and walked out half way through[back]
  4. Adam’s article doesn’t cover a Day a Pig Fell into the Well as he hadn’t had a chance to see it at the time. He would have had a ball with the toe-sucking incident. When I saw it at the BAM retrospective noted above, Noh Kwang-woo was telling me about the battle Hong had with the censors about that scene. Apparently they thought the scene a bit risqué. Hong asked what was so rude. Well, he’s sucking three toes simultaneously. When Hong absurdly offered to re-shoot the scene with only two toes getting sucked, the censors decided to let it through[back]
  5. I suppose when contrasted with Soojung’s previous experiences — being groped by her boss or being badgered into giving manual relief to her brother — Jaehoon must seem like the Real Thing[back]
  6. I had proposed the idea a couple of years ago to a (platonic) Korean female friend and she agreed with this proposition. I don’t know whether she was being polite in not disagreeing with me, or whether she had just been unlucky with her boyfriends[back]
  7. EJ Yong’s An Affair (ì •ì‚¬), Park Chul-soo’s Green Chair (녹색 의자), and Byun Young-joo’s Ardor (ë°€ì• ) come to mind[back]

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