Wednesday, March 21, 2007

David Gray on Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors


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David Gray doesn't have a blog ("as of yet", he says) but that hasn't prevented him from contributing to this Blog-a-Thon. I'm extremely glad he took me up on my offer to publish e-mail submissions for the event here at Hell On Frisco Bay! An offer that still stands, if any other blogless readers out there aren't wholly satisfied by leaving comments on others' pieces.
In Hong Sang-soo's Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors the image of a tram halted in mid-air during its ascent by a power outage and swaying back and forth is literally central, occurring at the halfway point of this carefully structured film. And this tram contains the titular virgin, Soo-Jung who is deciding on her way whether to meet her boyfriend Jae-Hoon at a hotel for a prearranged deflowering. As Soo-Jung stands in the interrupted tram, waiting for its stillness to break either up or down, she assists a mother by holding her screaming baby, in a beautifully constructed metaphor of her stuck life. Each of the three men in her life, all after her in their different fashions yet for the same reason, behave in childish, demanding ways toward her, and she is content to hold them as they scream.

Until this small intermediary scene we have been following the narrative of Soo-Jung’s suitor Jae-Hoon, in his soju-soaked courtship of Soo-Jung. It is the very screams of this baby that carry the viewer back to the beginnings of the same courtship, which we will see all over again, this time from Soo-Jung’s perspective.

That Soo-Jung should see Jae-Hoon as the most attractive of the men in her life is hardly surprising if her older brother is in any way a representative male. In his first appearance he comes into her room late at night and begs for a hand job until she wearily gives in. And then there is her boss Young-Soo, the man who has introduced her to Jae-Hoon. He hardly seems notice her at times, but then nearly rapes her, stopping short out of physical cowardice, not any moral compunction. Perversely and tragically, she comforts him in this brutal scene. It is after the mid-point of the film, this central metaphor, that we see both of these "sex scenes." Their placement into the narrative that Hong has been implanting in his audience’s mind through the first half of the film has a shocking effect. Scenes that seemed comic the first time through take on a much darker feel. Hong further complicates matters by giving us alternate versions of many of the scenes we have already witnessed.

Ultimately, Soo-Jung acquiesces to Jae-Hoon's pleas, and she ends the film no longer a virgin, after another disquieting scene in which Jae-Hoon repeatedly tells her that he will be gentle, while at the same time his body belies his words. Words and actions seem to constantly be at odds in Hong's film, as if the characters are constantly trying to persuade themselves that what they are saying is true. Jae-Hoon, in one of his most selfish moments, loudly berates Soo-Jung for not being interested enough in him. He raves that she has made him consider marriage, and does she realize what a monumental thing it is for him to consider marriage? Here Jae-Hoon really is nothing but a big baby.

In the final shot of the film, Jae-Hoon tells Soo-Jung that he has found his match, and she tells him she has too, but if we follow her gaze as they embrace we know this is not true. They see the world oppositely, which Hong highlights not only through their wildly different memories, but also, in a wonderful shorthand, by showing two separate point-of-view shots at critical points in the film as they each look out the window of the hotel room. Jae-Hoon sees the hotel chef walking from left to right, and later Soo-Jung sees the same chef walking back in the opposite direction. But Soo-Jung remains trapped on this motionless tram, and what can she do but wait for it to start moving again, and take her somewhere?

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is the first of Hong Sang-Soo's films I've seen, and over the past few days I’ve seen two more, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, and Woman on the Beach, all thanks to the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. They are all fresh and still flowering in my mind, but I am eager to see more. These hurried thoughts on Virgin don’t even touch on much of what I have loved about Hong’s films, like the little glances we get of Seoul, and the great funny drinking scenes that seem to be a fixture. I eagerly look forward to reading what everyone else has to say about the film.