Described as South Korea’s most cerebral filmmaker, Hong Sang-soo is one of the pioneers of the Korean New Wave Cinema that emerged in the late ‘90s. Stylistically, he is close to another independent film auteur, Jim Jarmusch. Despite the slower pace of Hong’s camera movements, he manages to completely absorb us in a tapestry of mundane conversations, peculiar characters, and fumbling romances. In a typical Hong film, a cocoon of coincidence, carelessness, and confusion is spun until all of a sudden, like a kind of magic trick, its layers of seemingly banal scenarios solidify into a chrysalis of intriguing questions that perplex us long after we have finished watching.
This was overwhelmingly the case with the director’s most recent film, Yourself and Yours (2016), which follows a young man, Youngsoo, who breaks up with Minjung after hearing rumors of her loose behavior around other men. Soon after, he stumbles upon a woman who looks just like her, yet claims to be her twin. Does his ex-girlfriend really have a twin or is she adopting this other persona? Their interactions are so subtly executed that it is impossible to know with total certainty. When Youngsoo gets back together with Minjung’s alleged look-alike – convinced that it is in fact Minjung – is he now playing along with her game, or has he in fact fallen for another woman? The ambiguity surrounding Minjung implies just how skin-deep our relationships might be, as we wonder if her ex-boyfriend really can’t tell her and her twin apart.
It is hilarious and unsettling all at once, as Hong casts an ironic eye on his characters’ relationships. His style, however, is not marked by that insouciance which defines Jarmusch, whose films are less apt to present us with fully fleshed-out characters than with offbeat caricatures of various social types. Hong, by contrast, gives us deeply flawed, self-sabotaging human beings. This has been true of his films since his debut feature, The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996), which was hailed internationally by critics and remains a cornerstone of South Korea’s new wave movement. Hong began studying cinema at Chungang University and went on to receive degrees at the California College of Arts and Crafts and at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Early on, Hong developed a unique working style that one would not expect given his highly structured film narratives. Though he works from a detailed film treatment, he eschews scripted dialogue, working instead to develop it spontaneously with the actors. Any specific instructions that Hong gives tend to focus on inflection, rhythm, and gestures, since he wants to direct the audience’s attention to these character nuances. He even chose to shoot his third feature, The Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (2000), in black and white because he felt it was the best way to foreground the subtleties of the film’s acting: “Color gives viewers more information than they need,” he said. “A screen simplified in black and white, on the other hand, lets the audience concentrate on the characters and discern emotional changes without being disturbed by peripheral objects and environment.” The Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors centers on a love triangle, in which a producer and a gallery owner fall for a woman who works as a scriptwriter for the producer’s TV station. She comes off as sexually savvy as she expertly seduces both of them, only to have them discover by the end of the film that she is a virgin.
A similar love triangle emerges in Hong’s Woman is the Future of Man (2004), where two old friends, an art lecturer and a filmmaker, reunite and decide to look for a woman they had both previously dated. Though a variation on themes and plotlines Hong had already explored, it was his first film to be entered into the Official Competition at Cannes, where it was met with mixed reactions and praised mostly by French critics. Six years later, he won the Un Certain Regard award for his comedy, HaHaHa (2010). Though the film contains specific cultural references only South Korean audiences are likely to appreciate, cinema-goers from around the world have found its premise delightfully funny: A filmmaker walks into a bar and sits with a group of students, most of whom (out of embarrassment) merely fake knowing who he is. Here, Hong seems to be poking fun at his own status: Despite being one of the leading artists in contemporary South Korean cinema, audiences have given him only moderate attention.
If anything unites Hong’s films, it is their attention to the artful intricacies of human relationships and the insincerity, escapism, and role-playing that often make it impossible for humans to communicate in a satisfyingly honest way. Hong is as much a philosopher as a director. Within his seemingly meandering plotlines are ideas, patterns, and alternate perspectives to be unearthed. Never has this been so true as in his recent satirical puzzle film, Yourself and Yours, whose pervasive ambiguity, lack of catharsis, and stylized repetition of dialogue and themes has elements of not only Jarmusch, but also of Krzysztof Kieślowski and Marguerite Duras. “Hong’s cinema is not where you should look for lectures on social ills or for moving tributes to humanity,” writes one fan of the director. “But if you want an honest and sober effort to depict something truthful in human relationships, then this is exactly where you should look.”