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Korean Cinema Through The Lens of Hong Sang-soo

Leticia lists her favorite films by Sang-soo.

Back in May, Bong Joon-ho made cinematic history with his film Parasite by becoming the first South Korean director to win the Palme d’Or—the main prize of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. Representation matters, and as much as other films in the running for the prize were favorites, it is undeniable that the award has rekindled cinephiles’ interest in other South Korean productions.

In the days following Bong Joon-ho’s golden moment, it was not difficult to find several recommendation lists of other South Korean directors. The names that appeared most often were those of Park Chan-wook, known for The Handmaiden, and Lee Chang-dong, hailed by the recent Burning. Although I agree with the recommendations made, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of mention of Hong Sang-soo—my favorite South Korean director.

A more detailed profile of Hong Sang-soo has already been done by some magazines, but I believe that nothing else in the world can show us more about him than his own films. Being both the screenwriter and the director of his productions, watching a movie from this particular filmmaker is a unique experience—as if we were watching a live-action of some Studio Ghibli animation, or the atmosphere created by Haruki Murakami coming to life before our eyes.

Each of Hong Sang-soo’s films deals singularly with everyday life, even with the use of recurring techniques—the zoom-in, pan, long shots, few cuts—which became part of his trademark style. Amidst encounters and mismatches prompted by destiny-planned coincidences, Hong Sang-soo’s films claim that he is very fond of good food (and good drinks!), cigarettes, and cinema—most of his characters, if not all of them, belong with the film industry, ranging from filmmakers to film students and movie buffs—they usually appear having long discussions in bars/cafés/restaurants, with smoking breaks. As Hong Sang-soo has dedicated a certain period of his life as a student in France, the country is vividly seen in some of his productions, including works with Isabelle Huppert, a French national treasure. 

Nevertheless, I must introduce you to a small compilation of my favorite films directed by him. With storylines that focus primarily on human relationships, development may seem too slow at first, but for those willing to invest at a slow-burn pace, I hope they can revere Hong Sang-soo as the master of the mundane he truly is.

Regardless of having not been mentioned here, The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996) — Hong Sang-Soo’s director debut — is part of the large collection of Korean films available through the Korean Film Archive‘s official YouTube page. This is a great way to learn even more about the Korean Cinema niche, thus highly recommended!

GRASS (2018)

In the end, people are emotions. Emotions are gullible and forceful, precious, cheap, and alluring. And I long for them now.

We follow Areum (Kim Min-hee) for an entire day while she stays in a café observing other customers, and using traces of the dialogues she hears to compose her own narrative.

Min-hee Kim in Grass (2018) – source: The Cinema Guild

Grass was responsible for introducing me to Hong Sang-soo’s filmography (and remains my favorite so far). Being a cinephile, it is easy to be connected with the character played by Kim Min-hee. In the end, it’s by watching other lives and other stories that we form our perception of whom we want to be in the world around us. Shot in black and white, the feeling I had while watching it was the same as pressing play into one of my Coffitivity playlists—a comfortable white noise that can inspire you in the best possible way.

CLAIRE’S CAMERA (2017)

Why do you take pictures?

Because the only way to change things is to look at them again very slowly.

Claire’s Camera begins with Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a music teacher who wanders through the city of Cannes taking Polaroid pictures while a film sales assistant named Jeon Manhee (Kim Min-hee) has just been fired. The two meet by chance, and the short time they spend together—the movie has only a 69 minutes runtime—is well enjoyed by both.

Isabelle Huppert and Min-hee Kim in Claire’s Camera (2017) – source: The Cinema Guild

Even though taking place entirely during the Cannes Film Festival, Hong Sang-soo chooses to record absolutely no details of this great event within the film industry. The focus is entirely on the relationships formed by each character, and the central action is properly done through Claire’s Polaroids. Hong Sang-soo uses the role of photography as a way of causing reflection—a photo represents what is left of the past, and even if the past means two seconds ago, that time no longer comes back. By following the wrong or the right path, the characters learn that the only way to get on with life is to live in the present.

ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE (2017)

Do whatever you want. Before you die, do everything.

I don’t know, I’m old now.

So don’t waste your time.

This one follows the trajectory of Younghee (Kim Min-hee) while trying to overcome a broken heart caused by her last relationship, in which she was the mistress of a famous film director.

Min-hee Kim in On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) – source: The Cinema Guild

Of all Hong Sang-Soo’s works, I dare to say that this is his most personal— as the character of the famous director of his film, he too was involved in an extramarital affair with actress Kim Min-hee. Still, it is interesting that he choose to tell his version of the story through a female character played by his own lover. It is almost as if he is openly apologizing to the actress involved in the scandal, giving her the necessary space to express her feelings about the event, while convincing his wife that the mistress does not deserve the negative judgments. The result is a movie deeply focused on feelings. Through guilt, longing, regret, anger and melancholy, we watch Younghee in solitude. Even when visiting a recently divorced friend, the character appears constantly accompanied by loneliness. Her journey is not easy, but it is cathartic to watch a woman become increasingly comfortable within her own skin.

NIGHT AND DAY (2008)

I’m here in Paris. I’m going to clean myself up and make a new start. I will.

After getting into trouble with his country’s law, Kim Seong-nam (Kim Young-ho) flees to Paris, France, leaving his wife behind. There he approaches art students, but problems soon appear.

Kim Young-ho in Night and Day (2008) – source: IFC Films

Who has never wanted to leave all problems behind and fly to a new city where they you could start a new life by being a different person? In this film, Hong Sang-soo invites his viewers on a tour of the City of Lights, while asking philosophical questions. Addressing the subject of plastic art— rather than our beloved Seventh Art, as in the films mentioned above Sang-soo takes the opportunity to comment on plagiarism in a really well-done way, contributing to the whole development of the plot. Among cafés and sculptures, we experience what it is like to live in a foreign country and being homesick. At last, even far away, the issues that afflict us are able to accompany us wherever we go. Using sequences that mix dreams with reality, we get to know more about the concerns of the main character, as if we assembled a puzzle, reaching its climax in the final scene.

TALE OF CINEMA (2005)

When you are a part of a filmmaker’s entourage, you tend to think like that. As soon as you spot a coincidence, you think it’s because of you. We all think the world resolves around us.

Divided into two parts, one serving as a backdrop to another, this feature represents the impact a film can have on the lives of everyone involved in it—from the actors to the audience.

A shot from Tale of Cinema (2005) – Source: Tumblr

I like to think of Tale of Cinema as a love letter from Hong Sang-soo to the film industry as a whole. Establishing a movie within a movie, we see two seemingly parallel narratives that do not take long to unite into one. The plot provokes its viewer with more interesting questions — Is life imitating art or is art imitating life? To what extent is a character inspired by a real-life person? To what extent can a person shape his or her real life to be like the life of a movie character? — It’s Hong Sang-soo at his best!

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1 comment on “Korean Cinema Through The Lens of Hong Sang-soo

  1. Great piece Leticia; very keen to check out Hong Sang-soo’s work now.

    Like

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