(Hong Sangsoo, South Korea, 2010)
This might be the film that finally cinched my esteem for Hong's work, which I had long viewed with a quiet, bemused, and somewhat reluctant admiration. Hong is one of the most widely celebrated international directors, the kind of filmmaker that a certain kind of cineasté knows he's supposed to like. But my experience was one of resistance; it took patience to find an entryway into Hong's cinematic world.
Some art house films suggest their sophistication through forbidding starkness, complexity, or emotional severity. Their difficulty serves, in part, to advertise their seriousness, the urgency of their claim upon our attention. But Hong's work is a different, rarer case: his films present themselves not as exalted, dense, or thorny; they lack any discernible grit, formal exuberance, or commanding bleakness. Instead, his movies appear slight, sketch-like, gnomic. About the most you can say is that they do require careful attention, if you're going to keep track of the characters and the chronology, which are never straightforward. And they are clearly works of formal innovation, however playful.
It's perhaps for this reason that so much of the appreciation of Hong contains a whiff of apologia, the mark of an artist who fascinates intuitively but resists exegesis. Critics seem to sort themselves either into frothy encomiums or somewhat reserved, cool-headed appraisal, with the usual caveat that his work's greatness isn't immediately apparent. Perhaps this polarity is of my own making, as I try to locate my own impressions somewhere in this range. If so, it would mirror my experience thus far: periods of languor as my mind drifts during another drunken, shambling conversation, interrupted almost violently by bursts of wonder as an unexpected action, a canny re-framing, or a juxtaposition flashes brilliantly onscreen, only to fade moments later, like an afterimage.
The key is to stick with it. Hong's work appears to be brisk and breezy, even when things get sodden with Soju. But there is a mercurial and even a febrile imagination behind his apparently reserved camera. Hong is a fundamentally dialectical filmmaker, perhaps the ne plus ultra of such an approach, at least among living directors. In his work, opposites are constantly changing places with each other, the tone bounces between wildly different registers, surface becomes depth and then switches back. The placid, apparently sturdy frame will pan gently or abruptly, and rarely with obvious cause, or will suddenly reconfigure the space with a zoom.
Hong's space isn't psychological, but emotional and existential. Emotion, for him, precedes thought, and the human comedy is essentially that of irrationality; reason, propriety and good taste exist to be interrupted. Chance and contingency rule his outlook, which both exults in the staggeringly many possibilities of imagination, and floats with a piercing melancholy over the randomness of life's events. Hong's brilliance lies in his fusion of art and life, a simple and often unrealized concept. His art is an organic extension of his feeling for life, rendered in a formal vocabulary that is wholly new.
The apparent poverty of his means - a few actors, a cafe or a restaurant with (usually drunken) table talk, a camera on a tripod - is in fact an apposite mechanism of both expressing and containing the overwhelming complexity of life, a Proustian attention to detail that reveals great depths in glances, hesitations, and misunderstandings.
In HaHaHa, I picked up on notes of melancholy and sudden joy that had eluded my attention in earlier screenings of his films, as well as surprisingly many compositions that were easily called beautiful. What Hong is discovering and expressing is the volume of life that goes unnoticed; the strange profusion of overlapping circumstances that nonetheless conceals so much detail. A casual get-together among friends (this being Hong, the encounter is ruled by an almost ritualistic emphasis on drinking), where a past weekend is recounted, reveals, in its cinematic depiction, unutterable volumes of longing, regret, and frustrated desire.
The depiction is Hong's testimonial to cinematic power. In his view, life is teeming with significance that can only be captured in retrospect or imagination - crucially, active processes, which in some sense can compensate for the in-the-moment confusion and helplessness with which we're all bitterly familiar. We are always dancing with our own fate; no awkward conversation is insignificant. This may be the positive image of what so often feels a negative perspective in Hong's work, focusing to an obsessive degree on his male protagonists haplessness.
Because finally, beneath the bitterness and the self-excoriation, Hong is an inveterate romantic. Desperate, perhaps, and anguished, but never entirely absent of the hope in the possibility of love to offer something beyond the shambolic day-to-day disarray of our lives. In the last scene, we see evidence of this: one of the couples, who previously had evinced very little indication of being long-term material for love, enjoys a fleeting moment of bliss. Whether or not this will stick is another matter, but for the moment (and Hong's world is nothing if not moment-by-moment) it would seem to suffice.