One of the most prolific auteurs in modern Korean art cinema is Hong Sang-soo, who has moved on stylistically from early, rather formalist pictures like The Power of Kangwon Province (1998, a film I adore), to a looser, more improvisational method. His films often feature central characters who are film directors or lecturers, who have desultory affairs with their young female students or film workers, and spend a lot of time moping about as a result (frequently including some glorious drunken acting scenes). Sometimes, though, he spins the scenarios so that the woman is more centred in the story, and these are generally the stronger films. His collaboration (professional and personal) with younger actor Kim Min-hee has resulted in a number of fine works, none better than On the Beach at Night Alone, made in a year of three films from him. This may pale next to some of the output of those 60s studio directors like Lee Man-hee, but in the current marketplace, it’s prodigious.
클레어의 카메라 Keulleeo-eui Kamera (Claire’s Camera, 2017) [South Korea/France]
I find it difficult to craft a response to this film, largely because by this point in his career (some 20 years in) Hong’s directorial style has become rather minimally idiosyncratic: loose free-form takes of people talking, usually awkwardly (and sometimes in English), from a fixed camera position broken only by the occasional gauche zoom in or out, with constant character types as mentioned above.
Well, so it is here, with Kim Min-hee playing Man-hee, a young woman fired mysteriously from her sales job by her boss while in Cannes helping to sell a film by director So (Jung Jin-young). That mystery is cleared up in the course of the film, but other mysteries intervene, chiefly prompted by the arrival of Isabelle Huppert’s Claire, with her Polaroid and a vaguely mystical line about changing people’s lives. And the characters do change, not least Man-hee, who is either a working professional or a glamorous model in various scenes, though this is largely unremarked upon. Perhaps she is changed by the photos and her encounters with Claire, or maybe there are two of her: So spots her early on among Claire’s photos, a glamorous woman wearing more makeup than usual, but then Man-hee seems to meet Claire again afresh shortly afterwards (unless there’s a time-shifting narrative I didn’t pick up on). So’s character too seems to tack markedly towards possessive and angry later on in the film, where earlier he seems laid-back. And as a portrait of the film world working in Cannes, it’s remarkably uninterested in the festival itself or in the glamour, preferring the low-key artistic creation of Claire’s polaroids or Man-hee’s childish counting songs.
In any case, half the delight of the film (or frustration, depending on your willingness to accept the strangely forced interactions and Hong’s style-as-lack-of-style) is in these comic little pairings, as character’s come together over food or drink at cafes and in apartments, and share these moments with one another. Quite often, the best work Hong does is over a plate of food.
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographer Lee Jin-keun 이진근; Starring Kim Min-hee 김민희, Isabelle Huppert, Jung Jin-young 정진영; Length 69 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Monday 23 July 2018.
밤의 해변에서 혼자 Bamui Haebyun-eoseo Honja (On the Beach at Night Alone, 2017)
Hong’s films, it seems to me, always strike a balance between an almost painfully revealing self-criticism (a seemingly autobiographical impulse to deal with affairs between actresses and filmmakers, for example) and a mysterious, enigmatic mysticism (with doubled characters, and dreams often indistinguishable from the main action of the film). Here we have a diptych structure, with Kim Min-hee’s character Young-hee seen early on in Germany pondering a painful love affair, and then some time later back in Korea, still mired in the same drama, but with a new-found maturity that the characters mention several times. There are some gorgeous, almost elegiac scenes of dislocation (such as the final one), but also comedic moments, like a random guy washing the windows overly vigorously at an apartment she visits. I think the light touch Hong shows in telling this story, as well as Kim’s excellent performance, combine to make this perhaps one of his finest films, and the way that the moods (of Young-hee herself, of her relationship with those around her, and with her work) shift perceptibly and beautifully throughout the film make it likely to be eminently rewatchable.
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographers Park Hong-yeol 박홍열 and Kim Hyung-koo 김형구; Starring Kim Min-hee 김민희, Kwon Hae-hyo 권해효, Jung Jae-young 정재영; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at work (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 7 March 2019.
그 후 Geu-hu (The Day After, 2017)
An elegant and beautiful film, which uses its monochrome cinematography and formal rigour (panning back and forth across food or drinks like the marital argument in Godard’s Contempt) in counterpoint to the messy emotions, as Kim Min-hee’s character Ah-reum gets drawn into a writer/publisher’s turbulent private life. The male artist around whom all the drama revolves (Kwon Hae-hyo as Bong-wan) is another one of these director stand-ins who’s cheating on his wife and in this case Kim’s character is not the one having the affair (as she is in On the Beach at Night Alone) but a woman caught in the crossfire, trying to extricate herself from this mess. In my memory she’s stuck in this cramped little office, glancing anxiously off-screen, as if she’d rather not be in the film at all, but she hardly shrinks from the confrontations with her boss, whose pathetic desperation constantly comes through, not least in a coda where it feels like yet another one of Hong’s little tricks of replaying the same scene again from a different viewpoint (dream states and dualities seem to run through his work), until it becomes evident he’s just a forgetful drunk.
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographer Kim Hyung-koo 김형구; Starring Kwon Hae-hyo 권해효, Kim Min-hee 김민희, Kim Sae-byuk 김새벽; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 18 March 2019.