The context was this. It was the Q&A after the 4 April screening at BAFTA of Hong Sang-soo’s Hahaha, attended by the lead actress Moon So-ri, the first featured actor of the KCC’s Year of the Four Actors. Tony Rayns was talking to Moon So-ri about how she got her first screen role.
Moon started her acting career working in a theatre company, involving some administrative work plus some small stage roles. And then she had a lucky break, landing a role in Peppermint Candy, a movie that turned out to be one of the most important films in modern Korean cinema history – a film which opened the fourth Busan International Film Festival, and which is sometimes placed in critics’ lists of top Korean films of all time1. How did she come to get the role? What was the auditioning process like? It was such an opportunity, and she had so little experience, the competition must have been pretty tough. How did she get herself noticed?
It was one of those moments that seemed to happen in slow motion. You could almost feel, from the way the line of questioning was building up, and from the relaxed, bantering tone of the conversation, that those words were bubbling beneath the surface, waiting their turn to come out. You wanted to shout out, “Nooo! don’t say it.” But, as if in a dream, you are powerless to stop what is determined to happen.
Homer had a colourful phrase for “what did you say?” which he would occasionally use to fill a particular position in his hexameter. Literally translated, the phrase means “What sort of word has escaped you, the barrier of your teeth?”2 This turn of phrase seems to imbue one’s words with an independent life of their own, an almost irresistible momentum that compels them to issue forth from the speaker’s mouth. But the speaker can nevertheless prevent the words from coming out by clamping shut his jaws to keep the words locked up inside. It is this Homeric phrase which springs to mind in recalling this moment.
The unfortunate words, seeming to have a momentum of their own, spilled out. The barrier had not been closed.
Casting couch questions for Moon So-ri? Really? A joke, Tony? No. #casualSexism
— easternKicks (@easternKicks) April 4, 2013
As the audience shared a collective intake of breath in an audible sign of astonishment and embarrassment, wondering if they really had heard that correctly, I think the penny dropped and Rayns provided some clarification, seemingly trying to backtrack. “Well, it does happen,” he explained. It didn’t make things any better.
There was an awkward silence. Moon So-ri started answering, then stopped. She tried again. It was hard to tell whether she was more wrong-footed by the question itself or by the reaction of the audience. Then, gathering herself, she talked about the audition process, the huge competition for the role (200 applicants). And as it happened, some people had noticed at the time that Moon looked a little bit like one of Lee Chang-dong’s ex-girlfriends.
Later, when the Q&A was opened up to the audience, one of the audience members took Rayns to task, saying that the question was inappropriate. Rayns looked apologetic, and said it was meant to be a joke, as indeed it clearly was.
It was the sort of thing that you might ask, jestingly, of a very close friend in private over a glass or two of soju. Somehow, though, the informality didn’t quite work in a public Q&A. But after that initial hesitation, Moon So-ri breezed on as if nothing had happened, and continued to charm the audience with her answers to the questions.
The screening started late and the Q&A was overrunning and I was at risk of not getting to a Korean restaurant before closing time, so I left the Q&A before it finished. Paul Quinn of Hangul Celluloid informs me that after I left, another member of the audience raised the issue again. “[Rayns] apologised and said it was just English humour. Moon So-ri said she got the ‘joke’ and he apologised again at the end of the Q&A.”
- Eastern Kicks reports from the Q&A, talking about Moon So-ri’s answer to all the other questions. And, in case you haven’t got it yet, he tells you what those unfortunate words were.
- Hangul Celluloid transcribes the round table interview between London K-film bloggers and Moon So-ri, which took place before the screening.
- And I really enjoyed Hahaha, the first time I’ve enjoyed a Hong Sang-soo film without trying. Here are my thoughts.
- It even makes it into the top films of the first decade of this century — despite being made in 1999.
- ποῖόν σε ἔπος φύγεν ἕρκος ὀδόντων – the word escapes both you (σε) and the barrier of teeth (ἕρκος ὀδόντων).