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The SF International Asian American Film Festival has wrapped up here in Frisco, but it lives on this weekend at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the Camera 12 in San Jose. The latter venue will provide the last chance to sample the festival's retrospective on Korean director Hong Sang-soo, when it screens his newest and perhaps most accessible film Woman on the Beach on Sunday at 6:30 PM.
It's been a wonderfully hectic week for me, between immersing myself in Hong's films, taking in the odd film by another director (like Ryuichi Hiroki's It's Only Talk, which wasn't as odd as I'd hoped,) hosting a Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon and reconnecting with cinephiles I hadn't seen in a while. One was Asian cinema devotee and sf360 contributor Jennifer Young, who swapped reactions with me at the AMC 1000, making me wish I'd had time to fit the just-announced prize-winner Owl and the Sparrow into my viewing schedule, just before we ducked into a question-and-answer session with Hong following Tuesday's screening of Woman on the Beach, which I'd seen on Sunday. She also had the foresight to record Hong's responses on a digital recorder, and the generosity to offer her transcript up for publication here at Hell On Frisco Bay. Here it is:
Q: What’s your take on reality?Thanks so much, Jennifer, for sharing this!
Director Hong: In the true sense there's no such thing as reality – it's just a word that we use for convenience. There's no such thing as reality. For example if I say, "Can you pick that apple up," you know it's an apple because I point at it, and we both agree to call it that. But when I look at the apple I perceive different things, you perceive different things, so it's approximate. So when I say something and you seem to respond, we feel we are in the same sense, the same perception, but in actuality we don't share the same exact thing. Even though we try to share our feelings about the same apple if I tried for 100 years to explain how I feel about this apple you will never understand how I feel. Right? So it's always an approximate thing- reality. So there is no such thing as reality.
Q: What's the starting point for your films?
Director Hong: Usually for me I am starting with a stereotypical attitude. I try to detach myself from the temptation to make something because I feel...[can't hear the rest of this sentence]. I try to tell myself I start from the structure and if I'm lucky I may get to the point where I find something new. And the new thing can be truer than my stereotypical reaction to the things.
Q: Who were some directors who inspired you?
Director Hong: Very many, many directors I liked. Jean Renoir. Eric Rohmer. Luis Bunuel. Some films of John Ford. Very many directors. When I was looking at them for the first time they stayed in my mind as a kind of reference point. So they told me something. Each director. When I'm doing something wrong one of them says to me "you are doing something wrong"! That's what I hear in my mind.
Q: Drunkenness and how it's been a catalyst for the characters in your films.
Director Hong: The situations or the characters I don’t realize when I choose. A situation comes to me and when it feels right I use it. The drinking scene happens to be the kind of scene that appeals to me. I can say that because I drink a lot. It comes to me more often. It just comes to me when I think about the script. I don’t find any reason to refuse it so I just use it."
Q: How did the long shot become such a big part of your style?
Director Hong: In the beginning of my filming I didn’t think about that, but like the drinking scene it just happened. I just used this kind of style of framing and the long take and then I tried to analyze it myself and I couldn't find the real answer. The only answer I found was that each director, I think, needs to discover a space, a temporal limit, and in that limitation that he feels he can explore more. So instead of putting into smaller frames when I have this bigger frame and the long take I feel I can bring up more things from myself.
Q:On the topic of style, you used to not use any kind of zoom but you did in Tale of Cinema. I believe and you use it in Woman on the Beach too. Talk about your use of the zoom and what it means to you.
Director Hong: It doesn't really mean anything. [Audience laughs] Like many elements in my movies they change, as I grow older. In Woman is the Future of Man when I was shooting I wanted to use the zoom but time was not enough so I had to postpone to when I was shooting Tale of Cinema. The first day of shooting I could use the zoom, I used it. It technically shows the actor's face closely without cutting in. If you cut in you have to stop and re-shoot with a long take and you have to ask the actor to do the same thing, which I really don't want to do. That’s one reason for not shooting it. And the other is a little bit of an alienation thing. When it's too emotional I like to feel detached a little – not too much. In Tale of Cinema I used it more. Here it was more a technical reason. I used it to show the face more closely without asking the actor to do the same thing.
Q: Was the final scene an attempt to change her negative perception of Korean men?
Director Hong: She says she doesn't have much respect for Korean men but right after that she needs help from Korean men. I thought about that scene near the end of a shooting day. A long time ago I was in Seoul in the metro. I was very tired and depressed. It was summer, so I was wearing short sleeves and this woman hit me here on the arm. I was surprised and I looked back. She was very gentle; she had a very gentle face and had a baby on her back. She just saw a mosquito on my arm and she hit my arm. And she was so embarrassed but when I saw her face I felt so good. Even though she's a total stranger and a female a mosquito is biting this man so she must stop it. It's very – you know what I mean? I felt so good. So I wanted you to experience the same thing.
Q: Does the setting of the seaside resort having any meaning for you?
Director Hong: I don't travel a lot, so the places I've been are very few. I tend to choose the settings from the places I've been, and I like that place.
Q: Talk about the repetition; every feature has at least one story that is repeated twice and the comment by the character in this film that she'll not be repeating the same thing he did; perhaps this is a comment on a departure of this style in future films?
Director Hong: When I released this film I wrote a simple statement where I said the repetition of the structure is a very good medium to show things, but if we repeat as a human being it's a sign of sickness. By using that structure I show how bad it is to repeat. We all know that each moment has to be perceived as a new moment but somehow in our brains like hair something is always twisted or tangled and you repeat things. For example somebody praised a specific action or you did something very well. Then inside something twists and you want to do it again for somebody who doesn't need that thing. Our mind is so fragile it's always being twisted. That's why we do repeat things. But to show that one of the means is comparison so I try to show that through repetition in the structure.