A girl walks into a bar, orders a glass of soju (a Korean alcoholic beverage), and begins a conversation with a man, probably a little older, probably a filmmaker of some kind. They spend a bit of time touching on life, art and philosophy without really going too deep into any particular subject. As they both know, and we the audience quickly realize, the subject of their conversation isn’t really life, love or philosophy, but rather their own burgeoning relationship. Do they like each other? Are they attracted to each other? How much self-deprecation is sexy, and when does it become a turn-off? How aggressive and forward can one be before coming off as desperate? Doubtless, this scene plays out in any number of social settings all around the world, but the inclusion of soju, and the man’s status as a filmmaker, might just tip you off that you’re actually watching a film directed by Hong Sang-soo.
If there’s one criticism against Hong Sang-soo, it’s that his films are all the same. It’s true; his movies do tend to be plotless rambles filmed in a loose, naturalistic style, about men and women circling one another, talking to their friends and generally doing nothing of particular note until they hit feature length and the screen fades to black. His detractors describe his movies as barely sketched-in doodles, and even in South Korea, commercial success largely eludes him. But there’s something oddly thrilling about watching his movies. We get the sense that we are watching real life, exactly as it is truly lived.
A critic who complains of low stakes is clearly not paying attention. When a female painter asks the successful director she just met what he thinks of her work, the conversational quality of the question hides a wellspring of emotion bubbling just beneath the surface. She is asking him if he believes that what she has chosen to devote her life to is worthy of praise. Or when at the end of a drinking session (and Sang-soo’s characters are always drinking) a man invites a woman up to his room and waits for her response. We may see a simple drunken come-on, but this man has met this woman, gotten to know her, let her get to know him and is now asking if he is someone she would want to be with. If she says no, she is rejecting not one aspect of him, but his entire person. How could the stakes in either situation possibly be higher?
His films maintain an impressive single-mindedness. In “Night and Day,” a middle-aged painter flees the country to Paris, only to fall into a quasi-romantic triangle with two female art students who are also from South Korea. The Parisian setting almost manages to not figure into the equation. This is not to say that Sang-soo makes films about middle-aged men and the young women who beguile them. The women are often equally beguiled by the men, and sometimes have so much to worry about in their own lives that they barely have time to stop and breathe, let alone be beguiling or beguiled.
Yet for all his film’s supposed sketched-in qualities — similar criticisms have been lobbed against the mumblecore movement, although the French New Wave might be a better point of comparison — Hong Sang-soo displays a remarkable willingness to experiment with form. Scenes are replayed with slightly different tweaks, doppelgangers abound, and in his most recent film “Right Now, Wrong Then” (currently earning raves on the festival circuit), an entire encounter between a man and a woman plays out in the first hour, only for the second hour to replay the exact same encounter, but with slightly different choices made by the characters at various junctures.
My first exposure to Hong Sang-soo came with “In Another Country,” probably his most internationally high-profile film to date, owing to the presence of French actress and art-house queen, Isabelle Huppert, in the leading role. She plays a Frenchwoman visiting a coastal town in South Korea where she interacts with various locals in broken English, their only common language. She does this in three separate short films, each 30 minutes in length, and plays three separate characters who share only their first name: Anne. There are scenes of melancholy (a visit to a monk) and of high comedy (a woman berating her husband in Korean for flirting with the foreigner while a bewildered Anne looks on, completely uncomprehending). But the best scenes are the ones Anne shares with a lifeguard who seems to like her. And she maybe likes him back, or not — she hasn’t really decided yet. It’s the best part of Hong Sang-soo’s movies. He’s a romantic in a different way than what we’re used to. His romance isn’t swooning young people and love at first sight. It’s two people, sitting on the beach, trying to get to know each other, and both being grateful to have such interesting company with which to pass the time.