November 2012, arsenal cinema

Tales of Cinema – Hong Sang-soo Retrospective


Starting with his debut film THE DAY A PIG FELL INTO THE WELL (1996), Korean director Hong Sang-soo (*1960) has created a unique cinematic oeuvre, which counts as one of the most idiosyncratic undertakings in contemporary cinema. Highly sophisticated in formal terms, yet also blessed with a comedic lightness of touch and an extraordinarily understanding of linguistic ambivalences, his films explore ever new permutations of men and women, eating and drinking (alcohol), (cinematic) fantasy and reality. Hong Sang-soo is one of the few auteurs for whom minimalistic modernism and highly entertaining narrative cinema go hand in hand. Hong is an inimitable chronicler of male malaises, with apathetic men - intellectuals, artists or filmmaker - usually being at the centre of his films, their narcissism leading them to unhappiness as well as into all kinds of amusing scrapes. Hong’s female characters appear to be playing along with the men’s games, yet manage to evade the imaginary projections of male fantasy again and again, WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN (2004) being the pleasingly paradoxical title of one of his films. Hong's erotically coded linguistic games are often taken as proof of a certain proximity to Eric Rohmer, but the ambiguous disruptions and surprises in his films are frequently more reminiscent of the surreal fictions of Luis Buñuel; like Buñuel, Hong often leaves the boundaries between dream, memory, film and reality pointedly unmarked. Hong is a master of mise en abyme: his later films in particular contain intricate film in film constructions within which it's no longer clear whether cinema is imitating life or the other way round. His obsessive use of doublings, mirror images and repetitions makes Hong Sang-soos oeuvre into a form of playful meta-cinema: films in films and films about films – a TALE OF CINEMA (2005), as one of his most beautiful films is entitled. Despite all this, Hong's films cannot be reduced to mere self-referential formalism, as they function at the same time as almost ethnologically exact observations of everyday life in Korea. Hong tunes into the linguistic nuances and physical gestures of the characters, who get hopelessly caught up in such inglorious emotions as envy, cowardice and egotism, as a means of revealing the social habits of the (pseudo) intellectual Korean middle class in pitiless yet amusing fashion. Similar to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Hong Sang-soo's "Tales of Cinema" invent their own world, in which countless echoes and resonances emerge between the individual films – seemingly insignificant motifs and things from earlier films reappear in modified form in later ones. This is but one of the many pleasures to be had from viewing his oeuvre as a whole.

Arsenal is presenting a full Hong Sango-soo retrospective comprising 13 feature length films and one short film, with most films also being preceded by an introduction. The director himself will be in attendance together with his leading actor Yoo Jun-sang on November 19 & 20 in order to present his two most recent films: THE DAY HE ARRIVES (2011) and the German premiere of IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (2012), which was shown at Cannes. To accompany the retrospective, an international workshop will be taking place at the Koreanisches Kulturzentrum Berlin (Leipziger Platz 3) on November 18, at which film scholars and critics will be analyzing the film aesthetic components of Hong's "Tales of Cinema". Presentations are being given by Hervé Aubron (Paris), Sun-ju Choi (Tübingen/Seoul), Daniel Eschkötter (Erfurt/Jena/Weimar), Lukas Foerster (Berlin), Kyung-Hyun Kim (Ir-vine), Sulgi Lie (Berlin) and Nikolaus Perneczky (Berlin). All the presentations are in English and entry is free.

DAIJIGA UMULE PAJINNAL (The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, 1996, 2.11., with an introduction by Sulgi Lie & 13.11.) is regarded as one of the most important debuts in Korean film history. Four loosely connected episodes set in the urban juggernaut of Seoul: an unsuccessful, frustrated writer oscillates between an affair with an unhappily married woman and another with a young woman from a poor background; a sales representative on an unsuccessful business trip is confronted with his phobias; a young woman has to fight her way through her precarious existence with a string of sordid jobs; a married woman is drowning in solitude and agony. The central coordinates of Hong's universe are already established in his debut: narcissism and neurosis, silence and dismal sex. THE DAY A PIG FELL INTO THE WELL maps out modern Seoul as a collection of anonymous non-places: tasteless cafes and restaurants, grimy love hotels. Hong’s first film is also his darkest work, leading all the characters hopelessly into the abyss in line with the allegorical film title.

From his second film KANGWON DO UI HIM(The Power of Kangwon Province, 1998, 3. & 14.11.) onwards, Hong Sang-soo has made use of a bipartite cinematic form, according to which the two parts of the film only fit together when viewed retrospectively. In this case, it is the story of a university lecturer, who, in the second part of the film, sets out in search of the places he remembers in connection with a bygone holiday love, who herself travels to the same location in the first part. The viewer has to construct the relationship between the two stories based on various marginal details. Aside from a few moments of black humor, it is the dead end of depression that sets the emotional tone of the film.

In OH! SOO-JUNG(Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, 2000, 3.11., with an introduction by Lukas Foerster & 15.11.), Hong's first black and white film, the complicated love story between a gallery owner and a scriptwriter is told once from the male and once from the female perspective – here it is the minimal (gender-related) difference between the two narrative positions that makes up the film’s subtle wit.

In SAENGHWALUI BALGYEON (Turning Gate, 2002, 4.11., with an introduction by Hanno Berger & 16.11.) too, the narrative is divided into two once again to level out the supposed differences between the first and second part by means of repetitive patterns. An unemployed actor is vying with a friend for the attentions of a woman and attempts to flee this unhappy love triangle. Yet on a journey to the provinces, he ends up in a similar constellation once again. The hoped-for new beginning falls under the spell of an unconscious compulsion for repetition.  

YEOJANEUN NAMJAUI MIRAEDA(Woman is the Future of Man, 2004, 6.11., with an introduction by Ekkehard Knörer & 16.11.) provides a new variation on the love triangle from TURNING GATE. As is revealed in flashbacks, two extremely egomaniacal friends, one a director, one an artist, each had an affair with the same woman in the past without either knowing of the other’s deeds. In the present, both of them travel to see the woman, who now runs a bar outside Seoul. Once again, the men’s behavior is channeled into fatally involuntary repetition.

Although BAM GUA NAT(Night and Day, 2008, 8.11., with an introduction by Julian Radlmaier & 18.11.) is the first and thus far only film that Hong has shot outside Korea, the Korean community keeps itself to itself in France too. After being caught smoking marihuana in Seoul, a married painter flees to Paris in fear of a prison sentence and stays in a Korean pension. There he meets both his ex-girlfriend as well as two young art students. Almost a parody of Rohmer, the absurd (physical) comedy of NIGHT AND DAY heralds in a new shift towards comedy in Hong's filmography.

In KEUK JANG JEON (Tale of Cinema, 2005 | 9. & 17.11.), the doubling strategy is framed by a film within a film for the first time in Hong’s work. A young man bumps into his ex-girlfriend and starts a relationship with her anew. After watching a short film, a director develops an obsessive desire for the leading actress, who he bumps into in front of the cinema. From life to cinema and yet back to life – this spiraling motion turns Tale Of Cinema into a celebration of the imaginative power of cinema as well as a criticism of its function as a place of (male) self-deception and loss of reality. This double bind of fetishisation and skepticism makes Tale of Cinemainto one of the most intelligent films about cinema. 

HAEBYUNEUI YEOIN(Woman on the Beach, 2006, 9.11., with an introduction by Daniel Eschkötter & 17.11.) Out of the sheer joy of competition, a director pinches his friend and assistant's girlfriend and is then unable to get over the fact that the woman has slept with several German (!) men in the past. In the second part, he meets another woman who he seeks to cast in his film because she reminds him of the first woman. As already in Tale of Cinema, strange camera zooms in and out introduce subtle disruptions to the cleanly framed shots. The film also contains a delightfully funny scene in which the director attempts to depict the dilemma of his desires in the form of a diagram.

JAL ALJIDO MOTHAMYEONSEO  (Like You Know it All, 2009, 10.11., with an introduction by Rudolf Thome & 21.11.) lampoons the film festival business: a director travels to a film festival as a juror, but is hardly able to watch any films due to a series of absurd occurrences. In the second part, the same director presents his new work at a film school on the island of Jeju and rekindles his feelings for his ex-girlfriend in the process. "What do you know anyway?" is an equally apt translation of the Korean title. Male wretchedness and regression are taken to grotesque extremes in this film, with the director becoming the victim of his own phantasms as in all of Hong’s films.

HAHAHA (2010, 11.11., with an introduction by Tim Schenkl & 22.11.) also translates the (in)congruity between knowledge and the lack thereof by means of an amusing narrative form in keeping with the title: over several glasses of wine, a director and a film critic regale each other with their amorous adventures during their last vacation – without noticing that their stories overlap. Various figures from Korea history also pop up in a series of surreal insertions.  

CHEOB CHEOB SANJOOG (Lost in the Mountains, 2009, 12. & 24.11.) is a short film produced as part of the Jeonju Digital Project. (The others coming from Lav Diaz and Naomi Kawase.) For the first time since he started employing voiceovers in Tale of Cinema, he now makes use of a female, who has to assert her perspective against the narcissism of the men.

With OKI-EUI YONH-HWA(Oki's Movie, 2010, 12.11., with an introduction by Nikolaus Perneczky & 24.11.), Hongs's meta-filmic interweavings reach a new level of complexity: four episodes, four times a film in a film in a film and so on: a maelstrom that can hardly be disentangled. Yet one thing seems to have changed in Hong's universe; unlike her naive male colleagues, Oki stands by the complexity of the many perspectives in her film: OKI'S MOVIEis Oki's movie.

BOOK CHON BANG HYANG  (The Day He Arrives, 2011, 19.11., screening attended by Hong Sang-soo, Yoo Jun-sang & 23.11., introduction: Joan Aguilar) is shot in elegant black and white and forms an experiment in minimalist stringency: a director (Yoo Jun-sang) ends in a sort of iterative loop on his winter transit through Seoul, evidenced most clearly by the way in which he arrives at a bar called  "Novel" not just once but again and again. The film takes a serial approach to modeling the alcohol-induced forgetfulness of its characters: play und replay.

DA-REUN NA-RA-E-SUH(In Another Country, 2012, 20.11., screening attended by Hong Sang-soo, Yoo Jun-sang & 23.11.) is Hong's first collaboration with a European star. In three different scenarios written by a film student, Isabelle Huppert visits the harbor city of Mohang in three separate roles. Various Korean men cross her path, including a charming lifeguard (Yoo Jun-Sang) who only speaks broken English. Hong's most recent film is a grand comedy of unsuccessful cross-cultural interaction.  (Sulgi Lie)

An event curated by Sun-ju Choi and Sulgi Lie. In collaboration with the Koreanisches Kulturzentrum Berlin.