By Nick Pinkerton
On the Beach at Night Alone
Dir. Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, Cinema Guild
The Day After
Dir. Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, Cinema Guild
Because I have a vested interest in understanding what passes for consensus in this fractured age, for some time I’ve made a habit of posing the same question to friends and acquaintances of the cinephile set: among the active filmmakers who first began to screen on the festival circuit around the end of the century, who has since emerged as unquestionably major? The names that recur with the most frequency are fairly consistent: Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hong Sang-soo.
This incontrovertibly says something about the specialized circles that I travel in, if not world cinema as a whole. Though Hong is evidently a known quantity in his home country of South Korea, and undoubtedly more so since his extramarital relationship with actress Kim Min-hee became tabloid fodder in a nation whose social mores he has frequently milked for comedy, he has never made a conspicuous success in the U.S. beyond a cult audience, despite occasional costly efforts by art-house distributors. Hong is something like the ideal of a cinephile’s filmmaker—which is to say that his movies are directly referential to the conditions of cinephile culture, because by Hong’s own testimony he makes personal films about what he knows, and what he knows is evidently making movies and touring the movies he makes. Hong is wildly prolific, never without fresh product to take to festivals, an international exhibition circuit servicing a specialized audience. His prolificity keeps him circulating within this circuit, and the circuit has more than once provided him with subject matter—his characters often have been filmmakers seen at one or another stage of making or selling the sausage, and his work time and again returns to the apparent horror of having to stand up in front of an interested audience to discuss one’s art. At times the films feel like the products of a hermetically sealed system, excreting and consuming the same material in perpetuity.
If Hong finds the process quite so taxing as he depicts it in his movies, he is living exactly the wrong sort of life. In 2017 alone he has brought three completed features out. All three of them feature Kim; one, Claire’s Camera, reunites Hong with his In Another Country (2012) star Isabelle Huppert; and two feature small appearances by Mark Peranson, the editor and publisher of Cinema Scope magazine, programmer at the Locarno Film Festival, and a longtime Hong booster. On the Beach at Night Alone premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, while The Day After and Claire’s Camera both premiered at Cannes, the former in competition for the Palme d’Or. And now On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After have both filled coveted slots at the New York Film Festival, no small honor.
On the Beach at Night Alone opens with Young-hee (Kim) and a slightly-older divorced friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa) at an open-air market in Hamburg, where Younghee discusses the circumstances under which she left Seoul—a love affair with a film director, who may or may not be on his way to meet her in Europe. The women wander together through the city park, where they are dogged by a strange Korean man; have a desultory dinner with a western couple (Peranson and Bettina Steinbrügge) of Jee-young’s acquaintance; and as a group visit the seaside in winter, where the shorter first half of the diptych film ends on an ambiguous note, as a seemingly unconscious Young-hee appears to be carried away by a mysterious figure. The second half begins with the lights going up on Young-hee in a cinema, giving the impression that she may be emerging either from watching herself onscreen or from a dream reverie. The setting is now Gangneung, a city on Korea’s eastern seaboard, where we gather through conversation with old acquaintances that Younghee is known, but has been a long time away. After a bibulous dinner with friends, during which she gets pretty tight, tries out a same-sex lip-lock, and berates the entire party by extolling the virtues of German men and questioning their ability or worthiness to love, she removes to the beach again, where, in a meeting which seems very possibly another dream, she re-encounters the director (Moon Sung-keun) who abandoned her.
The fallout from marital infidelity is also at the center of The Day After. Kwon Hae-hyo, a Hong regular who plays one of the Gangneung gang in On the Beach at Night Alone, plays Bong-wan, a critic and proprietor of a small press who is introduced as he’s grilled by his wife (Jo Yoon-hee) as to his extramarital activities, he only answering with chuckles and passive-aggressive noodle slurping, the tone of the exchange suggesting that this isn’t the first time that the subject has come up. The better part of the movie takes place at or around Bongwan’s small, book-cluttered office, where he interacts with two pretty, young female assistants. The first, Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk), was Bong-wan’s lover—their scenes together are flashbacks, though this fact isn’t immediately evident. The second, Areum (Kim), is Chang-sook’s replacement, already being treated quite familiarly on her first day on the job, before Bong-wan’s wife storms into the office and subjects her to a series of slaps intended for her predecessor. (She has discovered an old love note intended for Chang-sook and mistook Areum as the recipient.)
The male lovers in both films are, in a manner that will be familiar to viewers of Hong’s films, inflamed with passion and inconsequential by turns. They cry, they suffer, they swear oaths, they write poetry, they confess their grand amour, very often while under the influence of alcohol, but in time they sober up and move on with their lives, not visibly much worse off for their emotional travails. The Day After, which works with a shuffled timeline and draws out parallels between Bong-wan’s interactions with his two assistants, concludes on a coda of reunion between the writer and Areum that occurs some months after the events of the rest of the film. As Bong-wan inquires into details of Areum’s personal life, his line of questioning closely following that of their first interview, it gradually becomes apparent that he has no idea who he is talking to. He has forgotten her just as completely as he has Chang-sook—who has disappeared from his life—and is presumably well along on his next “project” by now.
These inconsequential men have been Hong’s stock in trade for years now, but of late he has been equally if not more interested in female characters—the women who are witness to this grandstanding, trying to set down firm life decisions on the shifting sands of these men’s whimsies. This isn’t to say that his women are angels. Younghee in On the Beach at Night Alone may suffer the lingering effects of her jilting; that she is trailed by phantom-like male figures in her travels, such as an uncommented-on window cleaner who lingers on the balcony of her beachfront hotel, may be some manifestation of this haunting. But she is also inconsiderate and oblivious in a way that wouldn’t be countenanced were she not young and pretty enough to get away with it. As a general rule, Hong’s people get away with what they can, and if the men tend to come off a bit worse it’s only because they have a bit more leeway to be shits.
There is a great degree of integrity between the subject matter and style of Hong’s movies, which put a viewer in something like the baffled female position. We must grope our way through while confronted with a great deal of seemingly irrelevant information in circumlocutious, often sozzled conversations, filmed in the style that Hong has been refining for something like a decade now, consisting of a master shot that is constantly being readjusted with pivots and zooms of ambiguous significance. On the Beach at Night Alone was shot in color by Park Hong-yeol and Kim Hyung-koo, who also did the black-and-white The Day After, and if either film happens into the picturesque, it does purely by accident. Trying to find an analog to Hong’s anti-style, the closest I’ve gotten are the late pedagogical costume films of Roberto Rossellini, similarly given to long takes, flat lighting, and spontaneous, probing zooms. Superficial similarities aside, what I take to be the intentions of these two filmmakers couldn’t be more different, though each is perverse in its own way. Rossellini stated that he was seeking to dispense with “art” entirely in his filmmaking, rejecting what he viewed as the dead end of modernist aestheticism to offer a history of ideas that would reawaken optimism and act as an agent of renewal and regeneration for the viewing public. Hong may be accused of many things, but radical optimism isn’t one of them—his films at once invite and rebuff interpretation, confronting the viewer with a jumble of desultory gestures that seem to invite us to make meaning while retreating all the time from the act of definition.
The cultivation of ambiguity through teasing little games of meaning is at work in Hong’s titling as well. On the Beach at Night Alone, for example, shares its name with that of a poem by Walt Whitman, which has the author contemplating “the clef of the universes and of the future” before offering a benediction to “all spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets.” There’s a temptation to see in this an echo of Hong’s established interest in parallel or bifurcated narratives—multiple universes, if you like—on display in both NYFF titles as well as works including Woman on the Beach (2006), Like You Know It All (2009), and Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), but this is precisely the sort of egghead overthinking that Hong loves to tee off on. If any of Hong’s title homages seem born of a true sense of affinity, it’s that of his 2000 Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, which takes its name from Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même), a work whose diptych form echoes Hong’s favored structural conceit, whose iconography is steeped in sexual neurosis, and in which niggling compositional care collides disorientingly with the infringement of chance operations.
As with Duchamp’s, there is a good bit of piss-taking to Hong’s art. In spite of this, a lot of the written discussion of Hong’s movies strikes a chummy, warm, familiar tone—“another trip to the familiar, Soju-soaked world of the South Korean auteur” etc.—which is curiously at odds with how prickly and nasty the movies themselves are, expressions of self-laceration that, in their occasional treatment of the filmmaker-audience relationship, implicitly extend to a hostility toward anyone who could possibly be interested in Hong himself. If Hong is indeed the best that we’ve got, there’s something troubling about this fact—for it should detract nothing from the integrity of his body of work to say that, when taken altogether, it is a quintessential expression of a cinema of disappointment and diminished expectations.
I say “taken altogether” because, with each film following fast on the heels of the next, each offering a new reconfiguration of familiar themes and figures, Hong’s is one of those oeuvres where each film seems less like a standalone construction than a brick in a larger edifice. I count neither On the Beach at Night Alone nor The Day After as among the strongest of Hong’s films—the latter at least has a potent kicker, where the former only trails off—but the nature of his practice makes these sorts of value judgments seem almost superfluous. Is Hong building a house with his films, as another famously prolific filmmaker, R.W. Fassbinder, once said? The incremental adjustments he makes from film to film give little sense that the 56-year-old is working toward his chef d’oeuvre or building to anything in particular. In fact, the movies seem to turn away from the very idea that there is anything to build toward, in either life and in art: things happen and then more things happen. Even his “sliding door” alternate narratives diminish the power of causality: things happen, but things might happen in another way, but then it wouldn’t make all that much difference if they did.
I don’t want to overstate the degree to which Hong’s films resemble one another. Early works like The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996) and The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), for example, touch upon sensationalist subject matter hard to find in the latter-day movies, and his camera style has followed a discernible “progress,” as it were, with the switch from shooting on film to video and the introduction of the zoom. Nevertheless, Hong is a filmmaker who departs to a rare degree from the idea of departures—to take the instance of Éric Rohmer, to whom he has frequently and never very convincingly been compared, if he has a lateral leap like Perceval le Gallois (1978) in him, there’s not yet been any indication of this fact.
The very idea of the masterpiece or the heroic undertaking seems to be definitively assigned to the past in Hong’s cinema, in which history is often quiet but insistent presence, either in the frowsy 18th century faces of western classical composers overlooking goings on in Bong-wan’s office or the monuments of medieval Korea that play a role in so many of his films—the Hwaesong Palace in Right Now, Wrong Then, the Namhansanseong Fortress in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013). In the intimidating shadow of unrepeatable past accomplishments, it only remains for us the living to drink and skirt-chase and so on, ad infinitum, and to work, of course, and do the best with such modest materials as we have at hand. And so another new year will bring, presumably, another Hong movie or two (or three), loose, sketch-like films, full of drink and recrimination and merciful amnesia sent out to make the well-trod fest rounds again, and play to the base. Employing movie stars is the full extent of Hong’s petition to a wider, popular audience—he has little of the sense of missionary outreach shared by Fassbinder or Rossellini in the 1970s, fired by the belief that a formally challenging cinema still had something vital to say to a popular audience. Hong’s is instead a private, self-contained idea of filmmaking, comfortable in its marginal niche and well-prepared for the final disappearance of that popular audience, made for little money with a few trusted friends and catering to a viewership of a few more. Because his self-defined goals are so modest, it is almost impossible for him to fail in a conspicuously catastrophic manner. And if greatness is defined by impressing onto an audience your own set of terms for judging the success of your work, then he is very great indeed.