Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ways To Watch Hong Sangsoo

The San Francisco International Film Festival begins Thursday with a Castro Theatre screening of The Two Faces of January, a pan-European thriller based on a Patricia Highsmith story. I'll be covering the festival as press once again, but momentarily turn my blog over to my friend Adam Hartzell, who has already shared his enthusiasm for one particular SFIFF selection (which is near the top of my to-see list as well in the coming weeks) in podcast form and at the, and now here. Thanks, Adam!

A scene from Hong Sang-soo's OUR SUNHI, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24- May 8, 2014. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
Although Hong Sangsoo's 14th film Nobody's Daughter Haewon (2013) appears, for now, to have skipped San Francisco, we have three screenings of his 15th film, Our Sunhi (2013), thanks to the programmers of the 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Hong snagged a Silver Leopard for Best Director at the Locarno International Film Festival for Our Sunhi. Hong's films tend to be festival favorites for folks who come to festivals for so-called 'challenging' films.
I don't really like that word 'challenging' because it sounds pretentious. It seems to imply that if you don't like the film or if you don't 'get it', it's because you aren't up to par intellectually. It is perhaps better to say Hong's later films, let's say post-Turning Gate (2002), are films that step outside of the standard film narratives we expect. Even when the narratives appear to be heading in a direction with which we are familiar, such as the art house favorite of two opposing narratives of the same event, à la Rashomon, Hong might even be complicating narratives we think we know. As Marshall Deutelbaum of Purdue University has noted, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) might seem like a he-said/she-said indie narrative, but Deutelbaum argues convincingly that it can also be read as one continuous narrative.
Part of what I enjoy about Hong's films is how he disrupts my genre demands of narrative. This is why I will be watching all three screenings of Hong's film at SFIFF. But if you aren't ready for Hongian narratives, the films can be frustrating. And although sitting with website our frustrations can lead us towards new insights, (I myself no longer own a car because my frustrations with trying to find parking in San Francisco enlightened me to the value of a car-free life), it can also be helpful to come to a Hong film prepared.
I do not want this to be seen as a 'How to Watch Hong Sangsoo's Our Sunhi', because similar to the word 'challenging', that can be pretentious too. These are merely suggestions of 5 ways to watch Our Sunhi that I hope will be helpful. Thankfully, we have a diverse array of films on display at SFIFF. To modify the cliche, if Hong isn't your cup of soju, there are many more visual libations to savor.
1) Don't expect a typical narrative. Let go of your standard reading strategies. This doesn't mean that Aristotle's tragic fall from grace or the reverse can't be applied to a Hong film. Perhaps there are some Campbellian myths in there. But I feel one can benefit by letting those strategies go while watching a Hong film and see where things settle afterwards rather than trying to impose Hong's films into standard story framing devices.
2) Even those who don't enjoy Hong Sangsoo's films enjoy his drunken soju table shot scenes. As Marc Raymond notesOur Sunhi has his longest table shot scene to date. Tense moments often arise at these tables. Hong is not interested in alleviating this tension. He wants you to sit with the awkwardness. Be ready for that.
3) If you can only watch one film before this one, consider Nobody's Daughter Haewon if you can find it. Hong's second feature-length film to focus primarily on a female character, and his first to focus on a Korean woman, it provides an excellent template for how Hong has advanced his roles for Korean women. This is not to imply that South Korean films don't provide quality vehicles for actresses. Many South Korean films do. Hong's films just provide something different. Women who flail and make poor choices amongst calculated ones. Women as insecure and pathetic and obliviously confident at times just like Hong's men.
4) Expect repetition across films and within. Yet if you yourself engage in repetition and watch the film more than once, you will see the nuanced differences in each rinse and  repeat. Seriously, buy a ticket for two screenings at SFIFF if not all three like me. Not only will you catch the significance of what appeared to be insignificant moments in your first screening, or moments you completely missed the first time, but you'll catch the subtle adjustments to what appeared to be completely repeated motifs previously.
5) Read up afterwards. Hong's is a literate cinema. His films are enhanced by reading what folks have written about his films. (For example, if you like to get your Lacan on, check out Kyung Hyun Kim's two books on South Korean cinema, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema and Virtual Hallyu. He tackles Hong's first 3 films in the former and next 3 films in the latter.) You can't really ruin a Hong film by reading about it before, but even if you are anxiously spoiler averse, read the essays inspired by his films afterwards. That said, Hong's cinema is also a salon cinema. They inspire discussion. Whether that discussion happens in print, pixel, or in the ephemeral space of words spoken, it's not that you will find things 'making sense', it will be that the senses of Hong's cinema will be accentuated by the cinephilic syllabi and symposia of writers and conversationalists whom Hong's films inspire. Hong's films aren't finished after the closing credits. In some ways, that's when his films are just getting started.

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