The Chinese Cinema

Four years ago, in the spring of 2013, I caught a particularly vicious strain of cinephilia. I’d been a guest on the They Shot Pictures podcast a couple of times, talking about Josef von Sternberg, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse, and we decided to sneak in an episode on Johnnie To before my second child was due at the end of March. To was a director I thought I knew fairly well, having caught a handful of his works over the years, but I quickly learned that his filmography was far more extensive, and varied, than I’d imagined. I spent six weeks watching almost nothing but his films and still didn’t manage to see them all before we recorded the show, which as a result covered only his Milkyway Image period. The next few months were a blur, as anyone who’s had a newborn in the house understands, but by the middle of May, I was pretty regularly heading into Seattle to pick up a week’s worth of movies from Scarecrow Video. It was usually the kind of eclectic blend that I’d been watching and writing about for years: silent films, Classic Hollywood, European movies, along with a sidelong glance at the new action cinema then trending under the Vulgar Auteurism label. But one day I snagged Sammo Hung’s Eastern Condors on a whim: I’d never seen a Sammo film before, I knew him only from his late 90s CBS TV series with Arsenio Hall, and from then on there was no escape: I’d caught the Chinese Cinema bug.

Within a week I’d declared the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo, and spent the next three months devouring Hong Kong films, more than 80 of them in the end, ranging from Shaw Brothers classics to hard-to-find New Wave masterpieces to oddball 80s and 90s comedies. The Summer ended, but I couldn’t let it go and by November I’d begun the Running Out of Karma project, which was intentionally designed as a digressive, rambling look at Hong Kong film history with a chronological exploration of Johnnie To’s career forming the spine of the work. But the digressions quickly took over: I covered To’s first three films in the final two months of 2013, but then only wrote about one film each in 2014 and 2015, and two in 2016 (I did write about six of his other films during that time, but out of order). In that time I’ve seen over 340 Chinese-language films, and written long reviews of more than 100 of them. So clearly, roping it all under the rubric of a Johnnie To project has become increasingly absurd, and the index I’ve used to link to all my reviews has become unmanageably long. Compounding my organizational trouble is that halfway through the project, I moved from blogger over to wordpress, which meant that all my old links, in both reviews and indices, go to the old website, and all my old reviews look poorly formatted on the new website.

So what I want to do is scrap the whole chronological To conceit and reorganize all the old reviews, from Running Out of Karma, the Summer of Sammo, and my pre-Sammo years, along with all my future writings, into one massive project called The Chinese Cinema. The callback to Andrew Sarris’s book The American Cinema is intentional: I’m going to sort everything by director, and group each director in slightly modified versions of Sarris’s categories (Pantheon, The Far Side of Paradise, Expressive Esoterica, etc). It’s not the only possible way to organize such a large subject, or the only valuable one, but it’s the one I’m most comfortable with both because I’m a classical auteurist at heart and because it’s the most open-ended approach, the one most easily built-upon and revised over time.

This will entail a lot of editing of those old reviews, some of them are in pretty poor shape, not just in formatting but grammatically and orthographically. But it will create a much firmer foundation for the work going forward, and should make the site much easier to use and to read. And it would even allow me to compile it all into some kind of a book format, if there’s any interest in such a thing. As it stands now, the whole work is well over 200,000 words. And I’ve still got a massive number of Subjects for Further Research. Because the great and terrible thing about cinephilia is that the more movies you watch, the more you understand how many other movies there are that you absolutely need to see.

Hong Sangsoo

Reviews:

Oki’s Movie (2010) – May 9, 2013
In Another Country (2012) – Oct 5, 2012
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013) – Sep 23, 2013
Hill of Freedom (2014) – Oct 3, 2014
Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) – Sep 30, 2015
Yourself and Yours (2016) – Mar 8, 2017

Podcasts:

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) – June 30, 2014
Our Sunhi 
(2013) – Oct 17, 2013
Oki’s Movie (2010) – Jun 14, 2016

Capsules:

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002) – May 9, 2013
Tale of Cinema (2005) – May 10, 2013
Like You Know It All (2009) – June 26, 2014
Hahaha (2010) – Oct 6, 2010
Yourself and Yours (2016) – Feb 27, 2017
On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) – Feb 24, 2017

List:

Hong Sangsoo Movies

VIFF 2015: The First Four Days

Things at the Vancouver International Film Festival have gotten off to a leg-numbing pace, as there’s been hardly a moment since I was freed from Customs on Friday afternoon when I’ve had enough time to write in combination with a working internet connection. Here it is Tuesday already and I’ve seen eighteen movies and I haven’t written more than a tweet about a single one of them. Mike’s been writing a bunch over at Seattle Screen Scene, you should definitely check out his stuff over there. We’ve also got a few reviews from local critic Neil Bahadur and Melissa will be adding some stuff sometime as well. We also managed to record an episode of The George Sanders Show last night wh
erein we discussed several of the films we’ve been watching, including Guy Maddin’s
The Forbidden Room, Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, Thom Andersen’s The Thoughts That Once We Had, Luo Li’s Li Wen at East Lake, Lee Kwangkuk’s A Matter of Interpretation and Philip Yung’s Port of Call. I might write about some of those here as well, but for now I’m just going to attempt to cover some of the films we didn’t get to on the show.

Unbelievably, despite having just finished watching it a mere 90 minutes before we began recording, both of us neglected to talk about Hong Sangsoo’s latest release, one of our most-anticipated films of the festival. The Hong film is a perennial highlight of every VIFF (I’ve seen Like You Know it All, Oki’s Movie, Hahaha, In Another Country, Our Sunhi and Hill of Freedom here over the years) and Right Now, Wrong Then is no disappointment. It’s a very good film,  while lacking the formal experimentation that distinguishes his best work (Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives) or the sheer giddy pleasure of his funniest movies (Hill of Freedom, In Another Country), it has a precision and focus that assures that, despite a certain conventionality, it will become one of his more popular features. Split evenly in two halves, it follows a film director, in town for a festival showing and Q & A, as he wanders about a tourist site where he meets a young woman. They talk, drink soju, make awkward approaches at romance and ultimately split when the director is proven to be a dishonest, womanizing lout. Then the film resets, complete with a new title card (the first half is “Right Then, Wrong Now”, the second “Right Now, Wrong Then”) and we replay the same day but with significant differences. The director in this version is honest and open (perhaps to a fault, as when a drunken overheating compels him to strip naked in front of his companions). Hong significantly varies his camera setups in the second section, creating more balanced compositions where in the first half the setups tended to privilege the director’s perspective (including a Hong rarity: an actual POV shot). It’s a mature film, relaxed and confident with a simple truth to tell. But underlying it all is a palpable loneliness. It’s played as sadness, as tragedy, in the first half, where the director’s faults lead to failure and angry isolation, and as wistful melancholy in the second, where people can find happiness in connecting with an other, with the full knowledge that any such connection is necessarily temporary. It’s a quiet and sweet film, a warm room on a cold night, and vice versa.

We talked a bit about Port of Call on the podcast, but I didn’t mention one idea I had about the film, which is that it’s a kind of update/companion to Peter Chan’s 1996 masterpiece Comrades, Almost a Love Story. In that film, Maggie Cheung plays a woman who immigrates from the Mainland to Hong Kong, works a number of jobs to survive (including at a local McDonald’s), has a deep connection with a character played by a major pop star (Leon Lai) with whom she bonds over a shared love of another pop star, Teresa Teng, and falls in with a big guy, a man of violence who loves her and takes care of her. In Port of Call, Jessie Li plays a woman who immigrates from the Mainland to Hong Kong, works a variety of jobs to survive (including at a local McDonald’s), has a deep connection with a character played by a major pop star (Aaron Kwok – though the two characters never meet, of course, their relationship, or rather, his with her, is the defining element of the film), and is obsessed with another pop star (Sammi Cheng). She too falls in with a bad crowd, and her relationship with a large man capable of violence leads to her doom. Chan’s film is one of nostalgia, with Hong Kong as an aspirational place of freedom and opportunity, where one can move, work hard and eventually make it big (and then, prior to the Handover, make it to America). Its characters look backwards to their home villages, with Teng’s music as the aching symbol of the world they left behind. Yung’s is a film of horror, based on true events that occurred in the 2008-2010 period, the Hong Kong it finds is no longer one of hope, but of desperation, with the poor set upon each other in twisted games of manipulation and violence, where even a glimmer of a true connection (facilitated by an internet chat) can lead to disaster.  Cheng’s music is the aspiration, it’s what Li and her sister listened to when they were trying to learn Cantonese, it’s the music of hope amid failure. Yung set the film in the recent past, as much because that’s the time when the actual events occurred as because given the pace of change in China, the situation has already shifted dramatically. In his Q & A, he suggested that economic conditions have balanced so much between Hong Kong and the Mainland’s urban centers, that such aspirational immigration is far less common (in fact, he points out that even in 2008, the dream of moving to Hong Kong was Li’s mother’s dream, the younger generation doesn’t look at the former colony in the same way). But there’s nothing particularly unique about the idealization of Hong Kong. If the Mainland is catching up with or even surpassing it in the realm of fantasy-creation, there will always be a disconnection between that dream, say the candy-colored consumer paradise of Go Away Mr. Tumor, and the gruesome reality of the poor folks who fall into nightmare.

Emily Ting’s It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is a different kind of fantasy, one of ex-patriates in Hong Kong and, more distressingly, of indie filmmakers weaned on Before Sunrise. Jamie Chung plays an American from Los Angeles (her grandparents emigrated from Hong Kong) lost in the city who runs into a fellow American named Josh. He’s the Joshiest Josh in film history, working in finance but really, an aspiring novelist. Actor Bryan Greenberg looks like the child of Michael Rappaport and John Krasczinski, but with even worse hair than that implies. He shows her around, lets slip way too late in the evening that he has a girlfriend and the couple splits. . . only to reunite a year later for another walk (once again hitting places best seen in Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To films) and faux-naturalistic conversation (and a trip to a bar to see a Hong Kong knock-off of Arcade Fire, which is exactly as appalling as that sounds). After a century of Parisian dominance, it’s clear to me that Hong Kong is the most cinematic city in the world, and it certainly doesn’t let Ting down. The film is gorgeous, the bright lights of Hong Kong providing enough inherent pleasure that one is able to overlook the constructed obviousness of the script and the bland nothingness that is Greenberg’s performance. Chung fares better, her lines are just as generic but she sells them with big eyes and a world-saving smile. Pretty as the city is, it’s a problem when during the romantic climax of your film, the most interesting thing on screen is the multi-layered play of lights on a taxi cab window. Not even a cameo from the great Richard Ng can bring it to life.

A vastly more successful Hong Kong romance comes from the team of Mabel Cheung and Alex Law (she directs, he produces, they both write). Based on the life of Jackie Chan’s parents (though the story ends long before he was born) A Tale of Three Cities stars Tang Wei and Lau Ching-wan (weirdly billed as “Sean Lau”, which I haven’t seen him marketed as in years, a sign perhaps that the film is trying for a North American release) as a couple kept desperately apart by war (first against the Japanese, then against the Communists). In a Brady Bunch-like set-up, Tang has two young daughters and a husband she didn’t care for who gets killed by a clock during an air raid, while Lau has two sons and a wife dying of some unknown disease. They meet when, in the course of his duty as a Nationalist soldier, he catches her smuggling opium and lets her go. It turns out she’s his wife’s cousin and they meet up again when the war forces them from Shanghai to the smaller town of Anhui. He’s loud, illiterate and usually drunk, she’s quiet, refined and very smart. Of course they fall in love, but first the war (Lau is captured by the Japanese) and then family keep them apart (Tang’s mother doesn’t think he’s classy enough for her girl). The performances of the two leads are exceptional, Lau playing a typical role for him: a hard man with soft eyes. Tang though, is proving herself to simply be one of the best actors in the world right now. Last year at VIFF she carried Ann Hui’s biopic The Golden Era (set during the same period, but much more experimental in style and tone) with a finely modulating performance as a psychologically unstable writer. Already in 2015 she’s been brilliant in a nearly a wordless performance in Michael Mann’s Blackhat and as the emotionally explosive center of Johnnie To’s musical Office. Her performance here is halfway between those two, with simple eye movements and precise gestures, she is curiosity and determination in the interior scenes, and in the many scenes of disaster she is broad and heart-wrenching, an expressive anguish that goes beyond melodrama. The film is a series of brief unions and long separations, as the two find themselves apart from each other and their children for increasingly long periods of time, mirroring the coming together and tearing apart of the nation itself. Cheung expertly keeps things focused, despite the leaps in time and location, and the film is a masterpiece of classical storytelling, the kind of lush historical romantic epic that Hollywood hasn’t managed to make in almost 20 years (Titanic is the last good one I can think of). Along with another such epic, 2014’s The Crossing Part One, directed by John Woo, it’s clear that these veterans of the Hong Kong film industry have once again bested Hollywood at its own game.

Four Romantic Comedies From VIFF 2014

Amid the Very Important Films tackling Very Important Subjects in Very Important Styles at this year’s festival, there is, as there always is here in Vancouver, a place as well for more generically-oriented fare. I’m not speaking of the always-fecund indie-horror/thriller genre, which too is well-represented and well-attended, despite my almost total absence, but rather that most-reviled of all contemporary genres: the romantic comedy. Burdened by 15, 20, 40, 70? years of spunky professional heroines cursed with the twin scourges of awkwardness and beauty-concealing eyewear; bland, square-jawed leading men with suspiciously nice hair; meets cute, stirring declarations and string-swelling finales; the romantic comedy remains among the most formulaic, irritating, disreputable and wildly popular of all film genres. But as these things always go, along with the successful trash there are every year great gems to be found, too special for the mainstream, their denominators not low enough for wide release in America’s multiplexes. Films that persist despite all the odds in exploring the promise of this ancient and enduring form.
At the top of the list of the best modern romantic comedies are the films of Hong Sangsoo, an annual denizen of the VIFF schedule (this is the 7th of his films I’ve seen here in Vancouver) and his latest, Hill of Freedom continues his winning streak with no end in sight (he’s managed an unbroken string of masterpieces with nine films since 2008’s Night and Day). Hill of Freedom returns, after a three film sojourn in the point of view of female protagonists, to the male perspective, in the person of Mori, a Japanese man in Korea to look for a woman, Kwon, whom he has decided he is in love with because she is the best person he has ever known (he respects her so much! A sentiment interchangeable with love in the recent films). The bulk of the story is relayed in a series of letters (memento mori?) Mori wrote to Kwon after he was unable to find her, his voiceover narration guiding us through the requisite drinking bouts, awkward social encounters and questionable life choices. One of Hong’s funniest films, my notes are mostly just pages and pages of dialogue as I furiously transcribed at least half the script. Formally there is at least one development in Hong’s repertoire: for the first time that I can recall, Hong uses a dissolve. It’s a quick one, eliding a moment within a scene (early on, when Kwon accidentally drops the letters on a stairwell and scurries to pick them up, with disastrous consequences for the temporal continuity of the rest of the film). And of the three big drinking scenes, only one is in the standard Hong shot, parallel to the table with the actors arranged perpendicularly, facing each other. The other two table scenes are angled off to the side, privileging one of the drinkers over the others (this is a return for Hong rather than a new approach, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors uses the same setup, among other earlier films). Unusually, none of the characters are specifically stated to be in the film or film teaching business, although Mori is told that he “has the fine mustache of an artist”. As sweet and warm as anything Hong has yet made, but with a dark cloud of instability under its fragile reality. The dreams and fantasies of Night and Day and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and the scripts of In Another Country, along with the temporal loops of The Day He Arrives and Oki’s Movie (to say nothing of the manifold points of view in Hahaha and Our Sunhi), give the recent films a slippery, kaleidoscopic quality. I experienced Hill of Freedom as ending happily, but looking back on it, I’m not so sure that’s what really happened.
Moving from one of our most-established auteurs to one of our newest, the most-underrated film of the festival thus far has got to be Heiward Mak’s Uncertain Relationships Society. This is the fourth feature by the Hong Kong director (in addition to writing her own films, she also co-wrote Love in a Puff, itself one of the great romantic comedies of the last decade, with its director Edmund Pang Ho-cheung), though she remains largely unknown outside of Hong Kong as far as I can tell (she doesn’t even have a wikipedia entry). In preparation for this festival, I sought out her earlier film Ex, from 2010, which my wife and I both really enjoyed (“I like her. She’s honest.” pronouces the wife). Ex followed a pair of couples from a chance encounter at the airport. One woman breaks up with her boyfriend and goes off with the other couple, the man being her own ex-boyfriend. She stays with them for awhile, while remembering her previous relationship with the man, her boyfriends after the original break up, and her meeting and falling in love with this latest boyfriend. We experience it all in a series of non-linear flashbacks, usually from the woman’s point of view but not exclusively. In the end, the film becomes less a love story than a coming of age tale, as the woman begins to assert her independence from romantic influence and sets out into the world anew.

Uncertain Relationships Society works almost exactly the same way, except with approximately three times as many characters and an even more densely-packed flashback structure. We follow the characters from their last year of high school (2008) through the present, as the cast of mostly unknown actors grows up, at least a little bit. Each character is in love with someone who doesn’t quite love them back, while each is also loved by someone they don’t quite love in the same way. It’s a dizzying concept that Mak handles so naturally that the transitions and leaps in time and space and relationship always remain emotionally clear. In its leap from the particular to the expansively general, it reminded me of no less than the jump from Lola to Young Girls of Rochefort, to make a hyperbolic comparison. Looking at Mak’s credits, I’m curious just how involved she was in Love in a Puff, which strikes me as significantly better than its sequel, Love in the Buff, which is credited to Pang and Luk Yee-sum. Mak gives us all the required elements of the romantic comedy, the declarations, the panic, the heartbreak and triumph, but with an intelligence and, yes dear, honesty that’s hard to find in America these days. In many ways it feels more like a TV series than a movie, and I don’t mean that as a negative. It’s beautifully shot, the colors of Hong Kong as vibrant as ever (I’m still stunned she found a way to make the very familiar Hong Kong airport seem completely fresh in Ex), with the off-hand virtuosity which that most-photogenic city inspires apparent in every frame. She keeps her spaces stable and coherent, knowing just when to move in for a closer, more intimate effect (an early scene in a recording studio, a man and woman singing a terrible jingle for lemon juice, his voice in her ears as she stands at the microphone is as charged as anything I’ve seen this year). Rather, her story has the depth and resonance of a full season of very good TV, with at least eight fully-realized individual characters and enough story to fill 20 hours with ease. That she packs it all into a mere 118 minutes (there are two other versions, this length is her preferred “director’s cut”) is nothing short of remarkable.

French director Axelle Ropert’s second feature, the hideously named Miss and the Doctors (everyone agrees the original title, Tirez la langue, mademoiselle (or, Stick Out Your Tongue, Miss) is vastly superior), tackles the equally complicated subject of the love lives of the middle-aged. The doctors are brothers, general practitioners in Paris. They each fall in love with a younger woman, the mother of one of their child patients. The woman, a beautiful bartendress (Louise Bourgoin), is estranged from the girl’s father, and at first resists the advances of both brothers. The older, taller brother, gruff and blunt, is played by Cédric Kahn, the younger, a blond recovering alcoholic who looks a bit like a Gallic Michael J. Fox, is played by Laurent Stocker (billed as being “from the Comédie-Française”). It’s a sweetly patient, funny and melancholy story. One of those movies where everyone has their reasons.

Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, on the other hand, is as self-lacerating a tale of artistic ego and male self-importance as I’ve seen in quite awhile. Trapped for the first third in the insufferable mind of young author Jason Schwartzman, the eponymous Philip, as his hilarious misanthropy turns increasingly cruel, we’re given a reprieve in the film’s middle section, as Philip’s now ex-girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) reconstructs her life in fits and starts after their breakup. The last section of the film finds us back with Philip and his mentor, legendary author Ike, played with gruff arrogance by Jonathan Pryce. Like his previous feature, The Color Wheel, Perry delights in the us-against-the-world egotism of his protagonists, drawing pleasure in the absurdity of the difference between how they see themselves and how the world sees them. It would be unbearable if he didn’t care just enough about these terrible people to laugh a little bit with them, and give them an ever-so-slight chance of happiness, however perverted the manifestation of that happiness might be. Unlike The Color Wheel‘s gorgeously grainy black and white, the new film is in color, vibrant and warm. However, also unlike the previous film, it’s shot in a nauseatingly close-up hand-held style. The choice makes more sense here than in something like, say, Humpday, thanks to a voice-over narration (delivered by no less than Eric Bogosian) that frames the film as a quasi-documentary. I’ll readily admit my distaste for this style has as much to do with my own middle-age and tendency toward motion sickness. Suffice it to say I’d prefer it if Perry and his accomplished cinematographer Sean Price Williams would take a step or two back from the characters. But whatever, there’s lots of ways to make movies.

Tsui Hark

Tsui Hark

Reviews:

The Butterfly Murders (Tsui, 79) – May 31, 2013
Shanghai Blues (Tsui, 84) – Aug 28, 2014
Working Class (Tsui, 85) – Dec 07, 2013
Peking Opera Blues (Tsui, 86) – Nov 22, 2013
A Better Tomorrow (Woo, 86) – Jun 26, 2015
A Better Tomorrow II (Woo, 87) – Nov 21, 2013

The Big Heat (To et al, 88) – Jan 09, 2015
The Killer (Woo, 89) – Aug 24, 2015
A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (Tsui, 89) – Oct 21, 2014
Just Heroes (Woo & Ma, 89) – Aug 16, 2015
Swordsman and Swordsman 2
(Ching et al, 90 and Ching, 92) – Sep 26, 2012
Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui, 91) – Jan 16, 2017
Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui, 92) – Jan 17, 2017

New Dragon Gate Inn (Lee, 92) – Apr 24, 2014
Green Snake (Tsui, 93) – Oct 25, 2013
The Lovers (Tsui, 94) – Apr 04, 2014
The Blade (Tsui, 95) – Mar 19, 2014
Love in the Time of Twilight (Tsui, 95) – Apr 04, 2014
Zu Warriors (Tsui, 01) – May 30, 2013

Seven Swords (Tsui, 05) – Mar 11, 2014
The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui, 11) – Oct 29, 2014
Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon (Tsui, 13) – Feb 27, 2014
The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui, 14) – Jan 14, 2015
Sword Master (Yee, 16) – Dec 9, 2016
Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (Tsui, 17) – Feb 7, 2017

Podcasts:

Iron Monkey (Yuen, 93) – Jan 23, 2016

Capsules:

We’re Going to Eat You (Tsui, 80) – Jun 08, 2013
Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (Tsui, 80) – Jun 25, 2013
Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (Tsui, 80) – Jan 20, 2017
All the Wrong Clues for the Right Solution (Tsui, 81) – Nov 27, 2013
Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street (Tsui, 84) – Dec 04, 2013
The Banquet (Tsui et al, 91) – Dec 13, 2013

Twin Dragons (Tsui & Lam, 92) – Apr 14, 2015
The East is Red (Ching & Lee, 93) – Jun 22, 2015
Once Upon a Time in China III (Tsui, 93) – Jan 18, 2017
Burning Paradise in Hell (Lam, 94) – Nov 22, 2016
The Chinese Feast (Tsui, 95) – Jun 04, 2013
Black Mask (Lee, 96) – Mar 22, 2016
Shanghai Grand (Poon, 96) – Mar 20, 2016

Double Team (Tsui, 97) – Apr 04, 2014
Knock Off (Tsui, 98) – Apr 07, 2014
Time and Tide (Tsui, 00) – Mar 25, 2014
Time and Tide (Tsui, 00) – Sep 05, 2016
Triangle (Lam, Tsui & To, 07) – Mar 09, 2013
Missing (Tsui, 08) – Jan 25, 2017
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui, 2010) – Apr 24, 2014

List:

Tsui Hark Movies

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo, 2013)

nobodys_daughter_haewon_7

I saw my first Hong Sangsoo movie at the 2009 Vancouver Film Festival. It was Like You Know It All and it was my second favorite of the 18 movies I saw there that year. Shortly after I sought out a couple earlier Hong films (The Woman on the Beach and Woman is the Future of Man) and was underwhelmed. The familiar tropes were there (blocked director on vacation, crimes of the heart, drinking, bifurcated narrative structures reflecting in on themselves) but the moves just didn’t seem as much fun. I chalked it up to the particular circumstances of that first viewing: seeing a film at a film festival that pokes fun at the insular and more than a little absurd festival experience. Perhaps he just wasn’t as great as I thought he was.

But Hong redeemed himself in my eyes at the 2010 festival, where his Oki’s Movie and Hahaha were again two of my favorites, each film taking his formal playfulness in bold new directions while retaining the self-effacing comic spirit that initially won me over. Since then I’ve managed to see almost all of Hong’s films (including In Another Country, the most charming film of VIFF 2012 and Romance Joe, another VIFF 2012 favorite by Hong’s longtime assistant director Lee Kwangkuk). These films, along with 2008’s comparatively epic Night and Day and 2011’s Marienbad-esque The Day He Arrives amount to as remarkable an on-going streak of greatness as any director working today (Oki’s Movie remains my favorite of the dozen I’ve seen so far). Since he took 2007 off after Woman on the Beach, Hong’s made eight features in six years, counting 2013’s Our Sunhi (one of my most anticipated films of VIFF 2013) and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, which premiered at festivals earlier this year. Hong has yet to see his festival popularity translate into proper theatrical distribution in the US. Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives and In Another Country all played in New York in 2012, but only the last one saw a wider release, most likely due to the art house popularity of its (French) star, Isabelle Huppert. Several of his films are available on the various streaming platforms, but he doesn’t even have his own Director’s Section at Scarecrow Video. Maybe this will be the year he finally breaks through to attain arthouse star status. My fingers remain crossed.

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Continuing a recent trend, one that denotes a sharp break with his pre-2008 work, the film focuses on a female protagonist, though one who isn’t any more heroic than Hong’s usual cast of drunken, lecherous filmmaker/professors. Haewon is a pretty girl who is constantly told how pretty she is and seems to have become dependent on that flattery, no matter how poisonous it ultimately becomes to herself and the people around her. In each of the film’s sections, she conjures a man that adores her, and the film’s mysterious final line (“Waking up, I realized he was the nice old man from before”) recalls the profound final rumination from Oki’s Movie (“Things repeat themselves with differences I can’t understand”) a line that has come to epitomize so much of Hong’s work for me. One of the great pleasures of diving into the Hong universe is that each movie gains in relation to the others. No other director I know of more obsessively explores the same basic elements in film after film: a film director/student/professor who has an affair he shouldn’t have (with a friend’s wife/girlfriend, with a student, or both) while wandering cold, unglamorous Korean cities and/or vacation spots; studies of venal, hypocritical drunks that critique without judgement, the foibles of Hong’s people being ours and his rather than cruelly displayed objects for scorn, scolding and ridicule. With these basic characters and settings, and his deadpan minimalist visual style (marked most distinctively by the utterly atypical use of zooms), Hong conjures seemingly endless variations.

Haewon finds its closest companion in Oki’s Movie, which focuses on a student who had an affair with her professor and takes a couple of hikes up a mountain. Haewon’s affair occurred at some point in the past, though she considers rekindling it. She also takes two trips up a mountain, the location of an old fort-turned-tourist spot. Like In Another Country, Haewon features a lackadaisical to the point of abstraction framing device: three days that begin with Haewon describing them in her journal (public table, cup of coffee, handwriting in a notebook, voiceover narration) where the earlier film had the narrator writing three versions of a film she wanted to make about a French woman on vacation in Korea. On each day, the narrative is abruptly interrupted as she wakes from a dream, erasing and resetting the story as we’d known it (this also happens in the middle section of In Another Country, as well as in Night and Day). With these films, along with the four-short film structure of Oki’s Movie, the endless repetitions of The Day He Arrives, the self-delusions of Hong’s heroes have taken a metaphysical turn: not only are they not honest with themselves and each other in their romantic lives, but the very nature of their world has become unstable, liable to be rearranged or erased with the stroke of a pen or a sharp cut in the film. Where the earlier films (and also Hahaha) were built around coincidence and repetition, the later films have become Duck Amuck with horny, drunken film school denizens.

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I find myself pondering the title as much as anything else. Hong usually favors straightforward titles, ones whose meaning is immediately apparent (at least lately, his early titles are beguiling in their lingering prose: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, Woman is the Future of Man, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors). The first section explains quite clearly that Haewon is somebody’s daughter, as it involves her spending a day with her mother on the eve of the latter’s move to Canada (Vancouver, I assume, for the film festival). The film itself begins with Haewon meeting Jane Birkin (unnamed in the film) and telling her how much she admires her daughter (actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, also unnamed). The title then has, at least, two possible meanings: given the relative fame of Birkin, Haewon’s mother is a “nobody” and perhaps this is what is keeping Haewon from becoming the successful actress she wants to be (she says she’d give her soul to have Gainsbourg’s career). Or, being sad and abandoned by her mother’s move, Haewon is forced to become an adult: she is no longer simply somebody’s daughter and must take care of herself, become an individual in her own right. She then spends the next two thirds of the film pursuing relationships with a couple of older men (both professors and therefore father-type figures) while brushing off men her own age in some kind of Freudian irony. Parent-child relationships have largely been absent in Hong’s work thus far (most of the kids have been little and mostly off-screen, as the director’s child is in Haewon). Though a mother-daughter conversation does open In Another Country. Perhaps these are the first-steps in the integration of another trope into the Hong universe, another fraught relationship with which to play and poke and have fun.

 

Oki’s Movie (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)

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I noticed yesterday that this was available as part of Amazon’s Prime Instant Streaming service (along with Hahaha, the other Hong Sangsoo film I saw at the Vancouver Film Festival in 2010). I watched it the other night and was happy to see that it remains my favorite of Hong’s movies, all of which are marked by an unusual structure, in which elements, situations and/or characters from the first part recur later in the film, in ways that deepen, comment upon or subvert what has gone before. Oki’s Movie is the most structurally complex of the Hong movies I’ve seen (with the possible exception of the film that followed this, 2011’s The Day He Arrives), with a pretzel logic that twists the film back on its maker, questioning the motivation for making Hong Sangsoo films, or any films at all, in the first place.

At its most basic level, Oki’s Movie is a love triangle told four ways, made up of four short films, each of which has its own credit sequence of videotaped white characters on a blue background (the title song is the same for each film: Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”, a tune whose relation to Graduation Day is perhaps a nod to the movies’ film school settings). The most mysterious segment is the first one, which doesn’t fit the later developed patterns or (possibly) characters at all. Its title (“A Day for Incantation”) suggests that it’s the film that calls the other movies into being. Each of the of the latter three films focus on a love triangle between three characters: the girl Oki (Jung Yoo-mi), the boy Jingu (Lee Seon-gyun) and their Professor Song (Moon Sung-keun), each of whom are filmmakers. Each of the last three films correlates to one of their points of view. But the characters are mixed up in the first film: Jingu is a married film professor and filmmaker where later he will be a student, Song appears only as a fellow professor Jingu admires but begins to have doubts about when he hears he accepted a bribe to award another teacher tenure, and Oki doesn’t appear at all. Only at the end of the film, when an inebriated Jingu is doing an audience Q & A prior to presenting his latest film, does the question of a student’s relationship with her teacher come up. A girl in the audience claims to have had a friend Jingu dated when he was her professor, and that that relationship ruined the girl’s life by sabotaging her relationship with her boyfriend.

okismovieMy theory is that each of the subsequent films are movies Jingu later made inspired by the situation the questioner presented: a student having an affair with her professor while she was also dating another student. In each film, he casts himself as the boyfriend/hero and Song as the morally dubious professor. In the second film (“King of Kisses”) Jingu plays the typical Hongian hero: romantic, obsessive and often drunk. This film is the most similar to the first one in both story and style (even the locations are the same: Jingu’s home in the first film plays Oki’s home in the second). One example of the rhymes between them: in each film Jingu hangs out on a park bench and falls asleep. In the second one, he meets Oki and asks her out, while in the first, he has a flashback to when he met his wife, who he suspects might now be cheating on him. (Although: maybe this is not a flashback: wikipedia asserts that it is, but the woman he meets is played by a different actress than his wife. Regardless, the story of the first Jingu’s wife remains a tantalizingly unexplored tangent, suggesting that the rest of the film could have gone off in a myriad of other directions, not just the Song/Oki story. Such loose ends that tease endless narrative possibilities are one of the things that make Hong’s films seem so realistic, like they create entire universes.) While the third and fourth films keep strictly to a single point of view, “King of Kisses” is narrated more or less objectively: we also get scenes from Oki and Song’s perspectives, thus we know that they are having an affair of which Jingu is ignorant. We also know that Oki is a little freaked out by Jingu’s obsessive pursuit of her, but that she does genuinely like him. The film ends happily, with Oki and Jingu together in the beginning stage of their relationship, wishing each other a Merry Christmas and remarking on what a nice warm day it is.

6a00e5523026f58834013487e273f3970c-800wiThe third and shortest film (“After the Snowstorm”) is about Professor Song. After a blizzard, only Jingu and Oki show up for his class. The three engage in a Godardian Q & A session wherein the kids ask him about life and art he responds with gnomic aphorisms. It’s a kind of idealized version of the teaching experience, with two eager students lapping up Song’s wisdom (his best answer is when Oki asks why he loves his wife, he says “In life. . . of all the important things I do, there’s none I know the reason for. I don’t think there is.”). Later that night, after throwing up some bad octopus, Song decides to give up teaching and go back to filmmaking (“I was a bad teacher,” he cheerfully exclaims in voiceover). It’s unclear if this film takes place before during or after the love triangle situation, or if one ever even occurred in its world.

The fourth film (“Oki’s Movie”) would seem to be the most important, as it lends its title to Hong’s film as a whole. In voiceover narration, Oki tells us this is a film about two different walks she made along the same path in a park with two different men, one older (played by the actor who plays Song), one younger (played by the actor who plays Jingu), two years apart (the first, with the older man, on New Year’s Eve, the second on New Year’s Day). Intercutting between the stories, she points out the similarities and differences between the two men and her reactions to them. Pointedly, the men are never named, we assume they are the same characters as the Songs and Jingus we’ve seen before, because the same actors play them and they behave the same way. But that inference is undercut by Oki’s final line: “I wanted to see the two side by side. I chose these actors for their resemblance to the actual people. But the limits of the resemblance may reduce the effect of the two put together.” I think she’s saying that she made the film in an attempt to sort out an experience from her past, by writing a story in which she could see the two men she dated together and compare and contrast them, to better understand her own experiences with them. She had an ideal of art as catharsis, as a coming to terms with her own history. But the fact that these are only actors means that it doesn’t really help: even the greatest artist is still only working by approximation, and without the real thing, true understanding is impossible. Not only is the recreation never perfect, but her perspective is necessarily limited: the best she can create is her version of her memory of the story and the people in it.

fullsizephoto135101Thus, Hong has made a film about a director who made a series of films adopting the perspectives of each of three people involved in a love triangle, based on a love triangle the director himself was once involved in. And in the end, Hong, through his character the director, through his character Oki, calls into question exactly how helpful filmmaking is as an attempt to resolve personal issues. The motive, then, for making movies has to be about something more than personal revelation. Art has to go beyond mere autobiography. The conclusion is the opposite of Alvy Singer’s in Annie Hall, where he gives the story of his relationship with Annie the happy ending it didn’t have in “reality” because “you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.” For Alvy, the happy ending reassures him, brings him some kind of closure and perspective on his relationship. Closure that eludes Oki and the first Jingu. As for Hong himself, the answer appears to be a rejoinder to critics who presume his films, about movie directors who drink a lot and have complicated and clumsy romantic lives, are autobiographical. Movies aren’t real, they can’t be.⁠1

mov_B2E795_20110114175433_6This leads us back to the first film. Jingu the filmmaker/professor is meeting with one of his students, giving her advice on how to improve her film. “If you don’t fix it, the narrative won’t support itself. Your sincerity needs its own form. The form will take you to the truth. Telling it as it is won’t get you there. That’s a big mistake.” She accuses him of trying to impose a formal structure on her film out of greed, to make her personal statement more palatable to a mass audience. He gets angry, the form (“two turning points!”) is how the filmmaker can “take away what’s fake” in her. It’s not by being true to life that the filmmaker expresses the truth, but in submitting truth to formal constraints truth can be uncovered. Oki will realize that she made a mistake in trying to tell it like it was.

Director Jingu, at the Q & A at the end of the first film, expresses the hope that his film “can be similar in complexity to a living thing.” Answering a question about what the themes of his film are, he continues, “Starting with a theme will make it all veer to one point. We don’t appreciate films for their themes. We’ve just been taught that way. Teachers always ask, “What’s the theme?” But before asking, aren’t we already reacting to the film? It’s no fun pouring all things into a funnel. That’s too simple.” (“But people might like simple things better,” the questioner responds.) Near the end of her film, Oki tells us that “Things repeat themselves with differences I can’t understand,” which is a fitting a summation of the vision of the world expressed in Hong’s filmography. A world of circular narratives that bend and repeat themselves with variations major and minor, tied to the rhythms of everyday life in all its awkward fumbles, missed opportunities and mysteries.

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This opposition to autobiography, or rather willingness to question the value and subvert the expectations of autobiographical filmmaking will be put to the test in Hong’s 2017 film On the Beach at Night Alone, which takes for its text the real-life scandal surrounding Hong and actress Kim Min-hee and constructs a hall of mirrors of self-deprecation, self-justification and self-criticism around it. An infinite regress of solipsism.