The World-Making Aesthetic of Hong Sangsoo

The World-Making Aesthetic of Hong Sangsoo

The World-Making Aesthetic of Hong Sangsoo

While he has long been seen as an apolitical filmmaker, his work is anything but. The auteur’s films engage with the dreams and contradictions of Korea like no other.


Few contemporary filmmakers have been as prolific as the Korean director Hong Sangsoo, who has produced an average of one film per year for the past 26 years, since his volcanic debut, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, in 1996. On their surface, Hong’s films appear like chamber plays, centering on the cultural class of South Korea and skewering the whims, hypocrisies, desires, and anxieties of urbane artists and intellectuals as they frequent cafés, bars, restaurants, and hotels. Yet in Hong’s peculiar and distinctive treatment, these mundane-seeming dramas are continuously bifurcated and atomized, often stopping and starting up again with only the slightest variations between sequences: a spoon instead of a fork dropped at a restaurant, or even a repeated gesture or tone uttered with slight differences. Episodic and elliptical, Hong’s films more closely resemble paper cuttings, whereby an image comes into shape only through the removal of interstitial space.

The entirety of Hong’s output was recently on view in a two-part series at New York City’s Film at Lincoln Center, offering audiences a chance to gauge the idiosyncrasies of global cinema’s great miniaturist. Part of Hong’s extreme productivity comes from his films’ often abbreviated length: Some of his later works can run for barely over 60 minutes. It is also a result of his pared-back working style and recurrent obsessions. Hong famously makes each film as he goes, writing scenes the morning before shoots and consulting with the actors intensely throughout the process. Coming out of the generation of New Korean Cinema, whose familiarity with Hollywood genre films has made directors like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook into household names, Hong is unique for never venturing into commercial fare. His films have only gotten smaller and smaller in budget, their resistance to expectations increasingly stubborn.

That fixation on the foibles of the well-to-do can seem overly modest, even insignificant at times, especially when seen against the more sociopolitically inclined allegories of his peers. Yet viewing Hong’s films together, it becomes clear that no filmmaker has been able to chronicle the long hangover of South Korea’s abrupt exit from military dictatorship and rocky entry into the global economic and cultural marketplace as ably as Hong. Unlike his contemporaries, whose critiques of the US military presence or income inequality have inevitably been co-opted into the Hollywood system, Hong’s films remain unassimilable. The circumscribed vision and milieu of his cinematic world have led to criticisms of his work as being apolitical. Yet these criticisms mistake the fundamental premise of Hong’s films; rather than being apolitical themselves, they document the experience of living in a nominally “post-political” era, in a country where the potential to radically restructure society briefly materialized before fading away into mere economic security. Re-creating this world while continuously reshaping it, Hong’s oeuvre constructs an aesthetics of the apolitical which is anything but.

Hong was born in 1960, to a father from North Korea and a mother from South Korea, who together started a film production company. Like the majority of Hong’s protagonists, who resemble him to varying degrees, he came of age during the tumultuous period toward the end of South Korea’s military dictatorship; the year he entered college, 1980, was the same year as the Gwangju Uprising, when a US-sanctioned crackdown on student protesters resulted in as many as 2,000 deaths. Although Hong participated in some protests, he never felt committed to the movement, and after a listless youth, he moved abroad to study, first in California and then at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he encountered the paintings of Cézanne, a far more revolutionary moment in his artistic education. Returning to Seoul in the 1990s, Hong worked at his family’s production company until the release of his first film.

Hong’s first features already demonstrate his attention to the anxiety percolating beneath the everyday. The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996) follows four characters–a struggling novelist, his mistress, the mistress’s husband, and a ticket clerk–whom we gradually realize are interconnected. Released three years after the establishment of South Korea’s first civilian government since 1961, when the so-called economic “Miracle on the Han River” had dramatically reshaped the nation, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well captures both the alienated web of social relations wrought by urbanization and the failure to reconfigure those relationships into meaningful shape.

In the years that followed, Hong pared down his narratives from ensemble works to his signature bipartite structure, in films like The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), with its parallel points of view of a seaside outing, and 2000’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (a newly restored version premiered on Mubi this June), in which diverging memories result in competing versions of the same affair. Although clearly influenced by the tradition of Japanese and Taiwanese “slow cinema,” as well as the European art house works of Bresson and the French New Wave, Hong’s films are uniquely characterized by their compulsive retracing of certain events, their emphasis on coincidence and repetition.

This bisected architecture has caused some critics to note a parallel with the division between North and South Korea. While Hong’s narrative devices do gesture toward the ways in which both sides of the peninsula have reshaped collective memory, his aesthetic also evades any easy allegory. Starting with Tale of Cinema (2005), Hong has increasingly used his stylistic divisions toward more metafictional ends; in Tale, we only realize we have been watching a film-within-a-film in the second half, when a character leaves a movie theater.

In other films, Hong displays a penchant for dream sequences that are not clearly delineated. We might know that a character has been dreaming only when we see them awaken. Coincidences and resemblances bubble up and fade away beyond mimetic divisions; the protagonist of Tale soon begins to subtly reenact the events in the film’s first half as if caught between received and constructed life. In Hong’s world, the fabric of reality is made of the same material as the fabric of dreams.

Hong has developed a unique visual style to accompany this narrative ambiguity, starting with the abrupt, jarring zooms and pans that he begins to employ in Tale of Cinema. Hong’s films can resemble soap operas with their melodramatic plots and explosive emotional outpourings; at the moment of greatest tension, however, he might pan away from a heated moment to a caterpillar crawling along the ground or a tree swaying in the wind. Hong is also one of the most creative depictors of drunkenness, but unlike a forebear like Cassavetes, for whom inebriation imbues the very substance of the film, Hong juxtaposes the experience of inebriation with the sobriety of reality. (A favorite technique of his is to cut to the middle of a restaurant scene, with four or five bottles already lined up on the table.) Even when Hong’s characters are drunk, his camera is always sober.

In their fits and starts, their circling and restarting of the same narratives, Hong’s films evoke a discontinuity between the present and the past, the sense that one is no longer commensurate with the other. His characters are always in between things; they might have jobs, but they never seem to be working, either waiting for gigs, taking vacations, or, more commonly, procrastinating. In The Day He Arrives (2011), a filmmaker visits the same bar on three different occasions, and the audience is hard-pressed to tell whether they constitute different days or alternate universes. That discontinuity mainly stems from the disorienting effect of growing up in a moment of heated political fervor, only to emerge at the “end of history.” His characters experience a sense of being unmoored from temporal markers, compounded by the peculiar unreality of residing in a peaceful and wealthy country still in the middle of the Cold War, of living with the veneer of stability despite the constant potential for violence.

Like other filmmakers of his generation, Hong’s earliest work centered on bad men: juvenile, delusional figures prone to awkwardness and miscommunication. In his book The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, the scholar Kyung Hyun Kim argues that the figure of the embattled male was a touchstone for South Korea’s post-authoritarian period. For Kim, that crisis of masculinity captured the anxiety of shifting social norms amid the transition from dictatorship to democracy. What complicates Hong’s depiction of this history is that his men are so often based on himself. These figures pose the trickiest dilemma about his work: Are we meant to laugh at or to sympathize with them? In the best of these early films, like Hahaha (2010), the men become figures of ridicule; in others, like Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) and Woman on the Beach (2006), there is a moral murkiness that can be hard to decipher. By forcing us to live through their perspectives, Hong makes these male protagonists both easy to identify with and easy to despise.

His more recent work, however, has augured a movement toward the perspectives of women. Films like Oki’s Movie (2010), Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013), and Our Sunhi (2013) are structured according to their titular characters, who are also filmmakers or artists in their own right. Much of this shift overlaps with his collaboration with the actress Kim Min-hee, with whom Hong had a much-publicized affair following their first film, Right Now, Wrong Then (2015). Like Eric Rohmer, a filmmaker with whom he is understandably (if imprecisely) compared, Hong has transitioned from skewering the foibles of his self-centered male protagonists to films in which the male consciousness is secondary, if not entirely absent from the film. His ability to create these complex, prismatic perspectives in the later stages of his career is a testament, primarily, to his working methods, allowing Kim and other actors the license to use their own experience. In later films like On the Beach at Night Alone (2017), The Woman Who Ran (2020), and In Front of Your Face (2021), the narrative arc is almost entirely determined by the interactions between women.

That same period since 2015 has coincided with a resurgent feminist movement in South Korea and an increasingly vitriolic backlash. For “post-political” men of the mid-20th century, the lack of political potential came with the promise of meritocratic, economic ascendancy untroubled by political strife. But it’s always the women for whom this atemporal vacuum has never been conceivable, whether due to the presence of sexual violence or persistently unequal living standards. In an essay on Hong from 2007, the filmmaker Claire Denis described his female characters as the “axis of time” in his films: “They are the owners of their time,” she writes. In On the Beach at Night Alone, a man approaches two women in a park to ask the time; the women first ignore him, then run away altogether to forge their own world.

In an elegant monograph on Tale of Cinema to be published in August by Fireflies Press, the Lincoln Center series’s programmer Dennis Lim explains that he decided against a chronological or topical treatment of Hong’s films, which were presented as a series of double features that allows us to see the films according to their own logic. “In a garden of forking paths,” Lim writes, “maps are of limited use.” Through these pairings, we see both the things that Hong remains obsessed with—dreams, drinking, dogs, beaches, taxi cabs—as well as those he has lost interest in, such as scenes of explicit sex. Fortuitous coincidences abound, as well as subtle differences: why the characters might be drinking beer instead of makkoli, for instance, or baijiu instead of soju. As in Hong’s oeuvre, the pairings give value to coincidences while simultaneously making a mockery of them.

Lim’s major insight is into Hong’s unique production process. Having eliminated the need for scripts and funding—Hong covers the costs for each new feature with the proceeds from the previous one and produces them through his own company, Jeonwonsa—he has carved a space outside the traditional film industry, insulating his work from the need for clarity and legibility demanded by larger productions. In his most recent films, he has served as director, editor, cinematographer, and composer. “Hong’s genius, you could say, has been to devise his own system,” Lim writes, arguing that the director’s “fundamental modesty and pragmatism [are] radical, and possibly instructive. We never think of Hong as a political filmmaker…but what is his entire project if not an act of resistance, a rejection of the norms that dictate what movies should be and how they get made.” If Hong’s films examine the shuttering of his apolitical generation’s ideological and emotional imagination, the way he chooses to go about his work is an attempt to keep every contingency open.

Hong often skewers the drudgery of the film festival circuit in his work, depicting the pointlessness of jury panels and Q&A sessions. At a 2015 press conference for Right Now, Wrong Then, however, Hong described his ambition in an uncharacteristically forward, if still elliptical, manner, drawing a diagram with two circles connected by dotted lines, under which he scrawled the phrase “Infinite Worlds Possible.” As he explained:

Just look at these two circles in the drawing as two independent worlds. If you believe there’s a clear reason for these two worlds to exist, once you find a clear meaning between them, then these worlds themselves disappear. Once we make clear sense out of these two worlds, they are just used up. It happens that it’s not easy to give them a clear meaning. So all the questions are kept alive if there’s an infinite possibility of worlds.

Hong’s films are always suggesting this possibility for a different world. It sometimes flickers into being through the presence of chance or coincidence; at other times, through the extraction of the unexpected from the ordinary. In all of his work, there is the constant need to keep meaning from becoming reducible to allegory or metaphor, to maintain the potential for ambiguity. In this sense, the films are truly radical, making the world anew time and time again.

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