Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo, 2013)

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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.

 

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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.

In Another Country (Hong Sangsoo, 2012)

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It wouldn’t be a trip to VIFF without a Hong Sangsoo movie, though it’d be tough for him to top the double he pulled at VIFF ’10 with Oki’s Movie and Hahaha, two of his very best movies. This one though is right up there, as Hong just keeps refining his quirky style, making it funnier, more elegant, and more subtly weird. Like Yasujiro Ozu or Eric Rohmer, Hong seems content to spend years creating endless variations of the same central subjects (in his case, vacations, infidelity, drinking, and lazy filmmakers) within the same self-mirroring narrative style (where is first films tended to have a dual structure, with the first half of the film varying the second, his later films have expanded that to threes, fours and more). And like Ozu and Rohmer, I never fail to find his films delightful. This might be Hong’s gentlest film, warm and hilarious. If there’s any justice, the Huppert name will finally get him the wider American art house audience he deserves.

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