Binge Drinking

Nick Pinkerton on “Tales of Cinema: The Films of Hong Sang-soo”

Hong Sang-soo, In Another Country, 2012, color, sound, 89 minutes. Lifeguard and Anne (Yu Jun-sang and Isabelle Huppert).

A WHILE BACK it occurred to me that I should really do something about my drinking. One day in a moment of clarity I looked around and discovered that whole swathes of my life were shrouded in a fog that gave my memories the uncertain, jumbled aspect of a dream, and I couldn’t even trust to my recollections of intimate interpersonal relationships. I think this was about ten or twelve years ago—I can’t recall exactly—and I never did get around to putting a plug in the jug, instead just floating along merrily, merrily, merrily. If any of this, even just the mental fog bit, sounds the slightest bit familiar, you might be susceptible to the films of South Korean writer/director Hong Sang-soo, and the bibulous, regret-wracked head-cases who populate them.

The critical cliché “a reworking of familiar themes” doesn’t begin to do justice to the acts of monomaniacal reconfiguration which make up Hong’s filmography, distinguished by often chaotic, rambunctious behavior penned within intricate formal frameworks. This is not to say that Hong’s output—seventeen features in the twenty years since he debuted with The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996)—hasn’t gone through changes. With the passage of time he has tried new things with the camera, going from largely static framings to making expressive punctuating use of the zoom lens, and his films have also altered in ways that denote his growing international reputation, working with foreign stars Isabelle Huppert and Jane Birkin in, respectively, In Another Country (2012) and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013), and trying his hand at (mostly) English-language productions with the former and Hill of Freedom (2014). Nevertheless, taken as a whole, Hong’s work gives the impression of an obsessive consistency of vision, with each new film a rearrangement of familiar scenes (marathon drinking sessions that veer into sloppiness, fumbling come-ons, emotional meltdowns), characters (often filmmakers, film-school professors and students, or festival staffers, always pushy, narcissistic older men and the younger women who can’t get free of them), and preoccupations (anguished extramarital romance, deceptive memory, the history-pregnant Korean landscape, the tiny ramifications of every decision which contribute to make little ultimate difference). He is a genre unto himself, the very mention of his name instantly conjuring images of tables cluttered with overloaded ashtrays and dead soldiers, empty bottles of beer, soju, red wine, Johnnie Walker, and anything else conducive to seeking oblivion.

Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then, which won the Golden Leopard at the sixty-eighth Locarno International Film Festival and is slated for US release on June 24, has the requisite scorched-earth drinking sessions, one of which takes a turn that’s mortifying even by Hong’s standards. Not only does it rework elements of previous Hong movies, but it reworks itself—with a twice-told diptych structure, the film plays through two possible versions of events over a twenty-four-hour period when a married, Seoul-based arthouse director, Han Chun-su (Jung Jae-young), stays over in Suwon to screen his films and has a dalliance with a young painter (Kim Min-hee) that ends curtly the first time, somewhat more tenderly the second. Even this broke-backed structure is nothing new, per se, for Hong has long been experimenting with breaking his features into constituent interrelated parts. His third film, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), which made a star of the doomed Lee Eun-ju, employs its own version of the once-and-then-again, flawed-mirror-image structure, later seen in Woman on the Beach (2006) and Like You Know It All (2009); triptych In Another Country gives an ambiguous triple-role to Huppert; Oki’s Movie (2010) is made up of four segments of uneven size with an uncertain chronological relationship to one another, the last a self-contained “doubled” narrative; and the chronology of Hill of Freedom is determined by a shuffled stack of letters read in the incorrect order.

Hong Sang-soo, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, 2013, color, sound, 90 minutes. Seongjun and Haewon (Lee Sun-kyun and Jung Eun-chae).

All of the titles mentioned above, and several more besides, will be screening at the Museum of the Moving Image for three subsequent weekends starting this Friday, many of them on rare imported 35-mm prints. (Hong began shooting digital in 2008 with Night and Day, and hasn’t turned back since.)

The experience of watching Hong’s movies in bulk—or soaking in them, if you prefer—only serves to doubly emphasize their many points of similarity and departure. They are without exception driven by discourse, much of this lubricated with booze or broken down through overindulgence, while offering little of what might traditionally be classified as dramatic incident, though Virgin Stripped Bare contains an attempted rape undone by flailing, piss-drunk incompetence and both The Day a Pig Fell into the Well and The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) feature crimes of dispassion. The later films, however, tend to shy away from this sort of thing, preferring instead to focus on matters like a filmmaker fudging his duties on a festival jury (Like You Know It All), the fragile mental state of a young woman whose mother has just moved overseas to Canada (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon), or a failed film director crying his guts out to an ex-girlfriend during a visit to Seoul and forgetting all about it the following morning (The Day He Arrives [2011]).

Hong avoids sinking into monotony while ceaselessly rearranging new variations on well-worn themes through a heightened attention to minute atmospheric specificities that distinguish each work, including season, weather (often overcast and inclement), and location. Hong’s films are an ongoing tour of South Korea—and not only Seoul and its various neighborhoods. The eighteenth-century Hwaseong Palace in Suwon plays a central role in Right Now, Wrong Then where the characters, as is often the case in Hong’s movies, are in the role of sightseers. In Haewon the Namhansanseong Fortress in the mountains southwest of Seoul is the scene of a agonized breakup and makeup, while Kangwon Province concerns two halves of the same sundered couple visiting the mountains of Gangwon-do. This isn’t a matter of seeking out fresh postcard views—while I happen to find Hong’s films beautiful, they are rarely beautiful in obvious, picturesque ways—but an extension of his tendency to strew his films with mysterious symbols, seeming to encourage us to seek obscure messages behind the detritus that people, including generations long past, have left behind: a prayer written on a temple tile, a mislaid pair of gloves, a milk carton on a bench, a smudge of blood on a hotel sheet, a stray cigarette butt, an empty bowl of noodles, a puked-up hunk of octopus, a nagging wound on the heart of another.   

How should we interpret these hieroglyphs? Hong himself is a reticent interviewee, and in Right Now, Wrong Then, Oki’s Movie, and Like You Know It All, he wrings material from the often-debasing tradition of the post-screening Q&A, though I suspect he gives us something like an answer from Yu Jun-sang’s director-surrogate in the last film, who offers that “Random things happen for no reason in our lives. We choose a few and form a line of thought… made by all these dots, which we call a reason.” Here we have the basic paradox of Hong’s art—he wends a swerving path between these random dots while giving the appearance of absolute understanding and deliberation. It’s a truism that Hong’s films are unusually preoccupied with macho bluff and posture, and he exemplifies his theme in form, presenting a cool, composed exterior while trying not to let on that he, and we, are hopelessly lost.  

“Tales of Cinema: The Films of Hong Sang-soo” runs June 3 through 19 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York. Right Now, Wrong Then arrives in theaters in the US on Friday, June 24.