A brief introduction to Hong Sang-Soo

By Helena Chung

South Korean director Hong Sang-Soo has been known for his high productivity, releasing one film every year on average for the past 20 years. This frequency, and his recurring depictions of relationships between men and women with soju on the table, has given him the nicknames of “Rohmer of the East” and the “Korean Woody Allen”. Produced by his own company and featuring a small number of cast made up of frequent collaborators, Hong’s indie films enjoyed a low but steady level of popularity in his home country. While praise for his unique auteur style earned him admiration in overseas film festivals, especially France (Hong is a critic darling featured regularly on the prestigious top-ten list of Cahiers Du Cinema).

The prolific director has broken his personal record by screening three films in Berlin and Cannes this year, all starring his new muse, Kim Min-Hee (the leading actress in The Handmaiden). The couple, who met on the set of Right Now, Wrong Then, caused a scandal in Korea last year when news of their extramarital affair came to light. The parallel between cinema and reality becomes extremely intriguing, as one wonders whether Hong intends his audience to interpret his news films as playful parodies of his private life, or merely as new variations of the director’s endless exploration on the hypocritic nature of language in lovers’ discourses.

The parallel between cinema and reality is extremely intriguing.

It is undeniable that certain significant changes can be observed in Hong’s new films starring his muse, as the camera lense focuses more on women and their active role in relationships, embodying virtues of honesty, freedom and faith. This may be a strange choice of words describing heroines entangled in affairs of doubtful morality, yet it is exactly what Miss Kim delivers in her heart-wrenching and sensitive performances within the dream-like universe of Hong’s cinema.

On the Beach at Night Alone, the title taken from Whitman’s poem, records a washed-up actress who goes on self-exile as she attempts to heal from her failed affair with a married director. The plot sounds familiar, right? Ever since its premiere in Berlin (where it won the Best Actress prize) the director and his leading lady have been repeatedly questioned on the autobiographical elements present in the film, yet both denied it.

Rather than viewing the film as a reflection of real life, it can be seen as Hong’s new approach to exploring the inner psychological landscape of women, who previously served as symbols of male desire and intelligent foils against foolish males (as stated in the title of his 2004 film Woman is the future of Man). This time, the heroine embarks on a bitter journey between Germany and Korea, between dream and reality, as she ponders on the meaning of love and life, alone.

The camera lense focuses more on women.

Claire’s Camera, a nod to Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, is a light-hearted playful piece that was shot within 9 days during the promotional trips of the two leading actresses last year in Cannes (Isabelle Huppert for Elle and Miss Kim for The Handmaiden). Only 69 minutes long, the linear timeline and simple English dialogues between actresses in their second language seems to lack the subtlety Hong is renowned for. However, as one dives closer into this carefree impromptu-like work, familiar motifs in Hong’s filmography emerge. Such as the act of taking photos which reveals one’s true self, as well as accidental meetings between key characters in the same place but in different sequence. This gives the film a feeling of melodic repetition which reminds one of Hong’s previous collaboration with Huppert (In Another Country in 2012).

The Day After, shot in black and white, can be viewed as a follow-up to the director’s 2011 feature The Day He Arrives. Both star male protagonists have a poor history of managing serious relationships with women. The Day After introduced a new angle to this trope, which is that of an innocent bystander who is dragged unknowingly into her new boss’s personal life on her first day of work (played by Ms Kim again, of course). With the name Ah-reum (which means beautiful in Korean), she provides a striking contrast to her boss who manipulates his new employee and his mistress in order to escape the wrath of his wife. The most memorable scene, though, would be Ah-reum’s prayer near the end of the film, as she declares her belief in faith with the pure snow falling outside. The skepticism and brutal sarcasm which has long been the trademark of Hong seems to be replaced by a rare moment of loving tenderness, touching the hearts of the audience with its truthfulness.

Image by Nic McPhee via Flickr 

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