by Colin Marshall
“Art is the concealment of art,” someone once said. Though sources conflict about exactly who that was, his words must have reached Sangsoo Hong, who toils to produce films that look and feel like nothing at all. This is a canny strategy to raise cinephiles’ eyebrows: plain people doing plain things, plainly portrayed? Then there must be something big and complex grinding away beneath the surface. While this way of thinking often leads straight to a dead end, the wall against which earnest film students beat their heads until their grad school fund runs dry, it pays off when applied to Hong, the most distinctive filmmaker to emerge out of South Korea’s cinematic boom of fifteen years and counting.
The Hong movie, of which ten specimens with a strong family resemblance now exist, is both a hard sell and an easy one. Spartanly unadorned, it’s built out of long, often unmoving shots of decidedly un-epic subjects. Its large stable of floundering creative types — writers, composers, filmmakers — pass the time hanging out in pubs, taking car and train trips, pounding bottle after bottle of liquor, stumbling into wanly unappealing sexual encounters, and blearily, unconvincingly, insisting upon their worthiness as artists, as lovers, as human beings. Their conversations are as outwardly inane as anything overheard on public transit or in hotel lobbies around the world. Despite the small scale of their problems, solutions refuse to budge from the hazy distance.
Yet it can all be so relatable. Though subject to a wide range of cultural and temperamental oddities — about which more later — Hong’s flighty monuments to frustration endure, in some sense, the same problems we all do. They want to stake out recognizable individualities, to do work that will make a mark on the cultural world, and to hook up with the men or women they’re particularly into — to connect, in various senses. But these broad desires are also vague, and they’re easily overwhelmed by the detritus of the moment. In Hong’s world, this detritus manifests as an endless stream of cigarettes, bottles of soju, chintz in all its forms, and sudden opportunities for sexual congress.
2000’s Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Hong’s third film, looks and feels different than the others but, with its chin up, covers the very same territory. Soo-jung, a screenwriter at a television station, draws the amorous attentions of both producer Young-soo and gallerist Jae-hoon. Soo-jung is the virgin of the title, and it’s on her to decide whether and whom to surrender the virginity in question. Jae-hoon pulls ahead of Young-soo early and rapidly, though neither candidate for deflorist comes off as a golden god. Soo-jung herself seems to be no prize, for that matter, with all her blank hesitancy and whiny vacillation. Why couldn’t all three have just stayed home?
The only possible answer: welcome to Hongland, a realm populated by the boisterous, the shiftless, the vainglorious, and the drunk. It’s a place where even the simplest plans, for everything from excursions to the mountains to halfhearted seduction schemes, have a way of haphazardly deflating in action. (While never framed in a classically comedic fashion, instances of this are often hilarious. In 2002’s Turning Gate, an entire group piles into a van, getting ready to head out just as one of them slams the door on their finger, memorably 86ing the whole excursion in an instant.) Men like Jae-hoon and Young-soo — not to mention women like Soo-jung — are par for the course. It’s only natural they’d get all entangled.
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