Sunday, September 6, 2009

Woman is the Future of Man

(Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2006)

After only recently hearing about Hong's work and its high status international cinema, I hurried to see what I could ASAP, finding WITFOM available to watch Instant on Netflix. Sadly, my enthusiasm for a contemporary auteur to steal ideas from has mostly evaporated - this film left me disappointed and perplexed. At first glance, it's a jumbled-up sex dramedy, consisting of a series of vignettes in which characters come together and fall apart. The tone is mostly detached and the scenes are disconnected, and so the title kept coming to mind as a potential Rosetta stone. But I was never able to unlock it's overriding significance - is it ironic, hopeful, pessimistic, or merely convenient?

Part of my confusion, I have to think, has to do with problems of cultural translation. Much in the film seems to hinge on manners and other norms of behavior, and my unfamiliarity with South Korean sexual mores exacerbated by puzzlement over much of the action. Which shouldn't be taken to mean that I couldn't relate - there is plenty of stuff that bridges the cultural divide easily, such as male insecurity and rivalry over women, not to mention general nostalgia over lost love and the past. The women seem to fare a bit better - they at least have some sense of what they want, whereas the men appear to be totally at sea.

The problem is that none of this is particularly striking or new. What doesn't translate seems stilted and phony, and the dialogue is occasionally so clunky that it offends the ear (or the eye, as it were, as one reads lines such as "I'm making love with you to cleanse you - do you understand?" with mortification.) Neither is there anything special about the visual style, which recalls late- Woody Allen in it's pragmatic simplicity. The dimension that seems to accrete favor in terms of the festival circuit would have to be Hong's deft manipulation of time - the vignettes flash forward and backward, and the audience plays catch-up with the narrative, piecing together the frayed strands of relationships. The problem is, the characters never become interesting enough to really care about, and so the story's momentum frequently stalls.

It seems that the central subject is disillusionment, and the irretrivability of the past - ripe subjects that aren't given much illumination. It's a neat, occasionally funky film, but it regrettably errs on the side of neatness, and winds up feeling minor and uninspired.

*It should be mentioned, though, that Hong does have a good sense of rhythm, both inter- and intra-shot, and there are some wonderfully odd (and thus truthful) cinematic juxtapositions . I'm thinking in particular of the scene in the car, which is punctuated with one character chewing on his breath mint, and the scene in which the same character, as he begins to receive a friendly blowjob - all he had to do was ask nicely - barely notices the dog as it wakes up and exits the frame as if embarrassed. Good stuff like this, however, isn't frequent enough to compensate for the other instances of contrived dialogue and direction.

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