“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.
Young-soo’s twitchy, pleading, but ultimately successful conquest of the inexperienced Soo-jung (and Jae-hoon’s pathetically hamhanded attempt at same) would, in the hands of another director, be the stuff of a short film — if that. But Hong chops his tale up into two hierarchies of chapters, one set numbered and the other curiously named, and then doubles it, leaving us with two sets of fragments depicting the same stretch of time. The second portrayal of events augments and even conflicts, to some extent, with the first, sticking closer to Soo-jung’s perspective rather than that of her pursuers.
This is only the most visibly daring of Hong’s many structural experiments. “People tell me that I make films about reality,” he’s often been quoted as saying. “They’re wrong. I make films based on structures that I have thought up.” Under his projects, all of which could well rank among the bleakest romantic comedies ever put to celluloid, Hong reveals himself as one of the most structurally-minded filmmakers now working. You don’t need to acknowledge this to laugh at the films themselves (or gawp at the behavior of their characters), but Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors seats it closer to the surface than do either its predecessors or its successors.
And that surface, as always, unvarnished; Hong’s dedication to plainness, which holds supreme the principles of the utilitarian vacation snapshot, sometimes verges on downright anticinematic. This particular film, though, is shot in crisp black-and-white, and includes some striking compositions, down shadowy alleys and atop frozen lakes, that pop out as sensory overloads by contrast. But a refined sense of aesthetics just doesn’t feel right when applied to the generation whose flailings Hong mercilessly, repeatedly captures. (The piano-lesson score just about nails it, though.)
It’s tempting to claim that Hong uses his deliberate blandnesses and the diagrammatic constructions to create, or at least isolate, his own strain of humanity, but Korean critics’ praise of his characterizations pulls the rug out from under that. Apparently, he’s actually pulling off a career-long indictment of a coterie with splotchily impressionistic ambitions, a young-ish set too disoriented to move forward, at once melodramatically brittle and hair-trigger cannons of meaningless rage, distracted with tragic ease by a drink, a smoke, and a one-night stand. There are lugubrious modern tragedies to be shot about this class, but Hong disdains such easy moralizing verdicts. Fortunately for us, he’s also too good at his craft to simply make fun of these people. His style is a cinematic poker face, and no matter how many looks as we think we’ve gotten at his cards, we still feel the need for just one more peek before showing our own hands.
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