Colette Balmain, editor of the upcoming Directory of World Cinema: Korea, encounters Hong Sang-soo at the screening of Hahaha on Friday 3rd September 2010, which opened the month-long retrospective of his work at the South Bank.
Before the screening of HaHaHa, which was followed by a Q&A with Tony Rayns, at the NFT, I had had not seen any of Hong Sang-soo’s films, although I was aware of his work from my research into South Korean cinema. This is because the lack of access to the films in the UK, which have not yet been made available on DVD. This is not the case in France, where Hong Sang-soo is recognised as an important and innovative director as he is in his native South Korea. This is not surprising as France has a long tradition and appreciation of art cinema, whereas in the UK art cinema tends to be marginalised. Perhaps the vagaries of translation and people’s general aversion to reading subtitles explain in part Hong Sang-soo’s lack of success here. Blockbusters or horror films which rely more on spectacle and therefore do not need such active engagement on part of the viewer have found it much easier to find an audience in the West than the more formal and philosophical concerns of art cinema which demand active engagement.
Hong Sang-soo is as interested in form as he is in narrative, as was clear from the structure of HaHaHa in which two friends – Jo Moon-kyeong (Kim Sang-kyeong), an unemployed film director, and Bang Joong-sik (Yoo Joon-sang), a film critic – discuss their relationships with women in Tongyeong during a makgeolli drinking session. During the conversation it becomes clear that although both were in Tongyeong at the same time, and went to the same places and knew the same people, neither realises it. Linking them together is Kang Jeong-ho (Kim Kang-woo), a poet, who lives in Tongyeong. The current moment is captured by still black and white photographs with voice-over narration of the two men discussing their experiences. The past is mobile and the narrative constantly switches between Jeong-ho’s and Moon-kyeong’s experiences, punctured by photographs of the present in photographic form. By doing this, Hang Sang-soo subverts the conventions of narrative cinema in which the flashbacks are carefully framed and distinguished from the present in order to present the viewer with a linear view of the passage of time; often filmed in black and white to connotate pastness.
Instead the narrative structure mimics the fractured relations between men and women. Relationships between men and women are complicated in Hong Sang-soo’s films as demonstrated here: Joong-sik is torn between two women, his wife (whom we never meet) and his beautiful mistress, Ahn Yeon-joo (Ye Ji-won); Moon-kyeong desires Kang Jeong-ho’s girlfriend while Jeong-ho has a fling with a woman that Moon-kyeong also desires. None of the men are fulfilled by their relationships, most clearly shown through the handfuls of anti-depressants that Joong-sik downs as an escape from the competing demands of his wife and mistress. As a result of the formal qualities of HaHaHa, it is difficult to say much more about the film based upon one viewing. In the tradition of art-cinema, the film demands repeated viewings in order to untangle the complication narrative structure and relationships which lie at the heart of the narrative.
HaHaHa was followed by the screening of a short digital film, Lost in the Mountains (30 minutes, 2009) – part of an omnibus digital film Visitors (Lav Diaz; Hong Sang-soo and Naomi Kawase) – commissioned for Jeonju International Film Festival – which unlike the former, concentrates on relationships between men and women from a female point-of-view. I had already seen Lost in the Mountains at last year’s London Korean Film Festival, but it was just as good the second time around. Less concerned with form and more with character, Lost in the Mountains provided an excellent counterpoint to the structural qualities and male-dominated world of HaHaHa. The screening was followed by an enlightening Q&A session with Tony Rayns, although Hong Sang-soo continually refused to be drawn into answering questions about the film’s meaning. He talked about how the liberation of South Korea from decades of military dictatorships had allowed the flourishing of cinema from the 1990s onwards. He explained the filmmaking process for his current films (his first three films – The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, 1996; The Power of Kangwon Province, 1998 and The Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, 2000 – were tightly scripted) before shooting started which involves a basic outline to begin with, then writing for two hours on the day of the shoot, and giving the actors and actresses just 45 minutes to rehearse and learn their lines before filming.
Although Hong Sang-soo said that there was no element of autobiography to his films – claiming that he gave his characters professions that he knew – having the protagonist as a director and his friend, a film critic, seems to suggest otherwise. He also stressed the importance of location to his work, with ideas emerging once a location had been picked. It was apparent that Hong is concerned with stressing the uniqueness of Korean society in opposition to mainstream, commercial cinema, which is often seen by critics to erase racial and ethnic identity through the process of globalisation. A question about Park Chan-wook and so-called “extreme” cinema did not sit well with either Tony Rayns or Hong Sang-soo. This is not surprising as the West tends to reduce East Asian Cinema just to those generic examples which are noted for their violence making it difficult for a director like Hong Sang-soo whose films do not fit the popular image of South Korean cinema to find an audience. While I am more likely to watch a film by Park Chan-wook or Kim Ji-woon, I can appreciate the stylistic qualities of Hong Sang-soo and feel that it is a shame that his films are not readily available to view in the UK and can only hope that this changes in the near future. The last words however belong to Hong Sang-soo, who when asked why he made films, responded: “I make films because I have to.”