Genius of His System

The films of Hong Sangsoo can be soul-baringly intimate, formally playful, casually surreal, and surreally casual. Did we mention he premiered three this year?

By Dan Sullivan

“I admire directors who have invented their own system of creation. A good example is Hong Sangsoo, who is now probably up to making four films a year, 10 days for each film . . . For me, when I’m lost in my fear, I think of him. I think, yeah, Sangsoo did it, so it’s possible.” —Claire Denis, at the 2017 New York Film Festival

T his year’s New York Film Festival marked Hong Sangsoo’s first time back in the city since 2010. His American cult has expanded exponentially in the intervening years, a historic run in which he completed 10 features and two shorts. As cool a customer as they come, Hong nevertheless seemed moved to see two of his three new films, On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After, screen to sold-out audiences at Lincoln Center—indeed, he sat through two of the screenings and enjoyed himself. Hong’s fans, in America and beyond, are devoted in a way that few other filmmakers are; in this regard his career and legacy-in-the-making resemble those of Philippe Garrel, who returned to NYC for the 2015 NYFF after more than a decade to discover a sizable, knowledgeable, and deeply enthusiastic U.S. following had grown in his absence.

Though decidedly low-key in personality and reluctant to make too much of his singular achievements, Hong is as restless and prolific a filmmaker as we have today, and he’s no stranger to the multi-film year: in 2013, he premiered Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (at the Berlinale) and Our Sunhi (at the Locarno Film Festival), and contributed a short to the Venice-commissioned omnibus film Venice 70: Future Reloaded; and in 2010 he presented both Oki’s Movie (at Venice) and Hahaha (making its western debut at Cannes). But not since Ozu’s ’30s, Godard’s ’60s, or Fassbinder’s ’70s have we seen feats of cinematic productivity that rival what Hong achieved in 2017, premiering one feature at the Berlinale (On the Beach at Night Alone) and two at Cannes (Claire’s Camera, as a special screening, and The Day After, in competition). At the time of the writing of this article, Hong has completed another new film. And, what’s more, he has yet another he plans to shoot in spring 2018.

On top of the sheer volume of work, what set this year apart was how On the Beach at Night Alone, Claire’s Camera, and The Day After radicalized certain aspects of his artistic project, poking hole after hole in the dominant narrative concerning his filmography—namely, that Hong, like Eric Rohmer before him, essentially churns out similar films, and that the value of his work resides in the microscopic (and largely formal) differences by which we’re able to tell them apart. Hong has now completed 21 features, which comprise one of the most thematically cohesive and personal oeuvres in cinema today. But while these films do share a spirit of self-criticism and, to some degree, harness autobiographical material to touch on larger questions concerning relations between the sexes, the porous boundary between life and art, and the vagaries of the heart, Hong always finds a way to alter his formal approach to suit the particulars of the subject at hand. His status as an experimentalist—on ample display in his three latest films—is under-discussed, though it’s as salient a characteristic of his filmography as his much-vaunted consistency. Anyone who tells you that Hong’s 2017 output is more of the same isn’t really watching, and it doesn’t require particularly close examination to see this. But as Isabelle Huppert’s character suggests at one point in Claire’s Camera, “the only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly”—and so, closely examine we shall.

On the Beach at Night Alone

On the Beach at Night Alone reunites Hong with actress Kim Minhee following the critical success of their previous collaboration, the self-mirroring Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), winner of Locarno’s top prize. As of late, she and Hong have found themselves prime targets for unwelcome scrutiny by the South Korean paparazzi on account of their offscreen romance. But in expressing and affecting far more than a straight description of their personal lives ever could, On the Beach at Night Alone transcends its autobiographical origins with a raw directness unseen from its director since the comparably caustic Woman Is the Future of Man (2004).

Something like Hong’s Husbands and Wives, On the Beach at Night Alone is a staggering series of pained reflections upon the challenges that love faces in an era when we are all far too concerned with everyone else’s business and when opinions—the more judgmental the better—are treated with a sanctity beyond question. The film packs an even greater emotional charge than some of Hong’s other recent ones, which likely has something to do with our sense that On the Beach at Night Alone is pitched even more closely to the particulars of Hong’s life away from the set. It is a deeply, achingly melancholic film, but it is also one of his freshest and most formally distinctive transcultural works.

On the Beach at Night Alone begins with Younghee (Kim), a reasonably well-known actress, hiding out in Hamburg, following the end of an intense affair with a reasonably well-known filmmaker, Sangwon (Moon Seongkun, of Hong’s Oki’s Movie and In Another Country, 2012). She spends some time with a fellow Korean expat (Seo Younghwa), discussing past loves; the two are stalked in the park by an unknown Korean man (played by cinematographer Park Hongyeol, who shot the Hamburg section), visit a bookstore, and drop in on some German/Canadian friends (Cinema Scope magazine editor Mark Peranson, who appears briefly in Claire’s Camera, and Kunstverein director Bettina Steinbrügge) for a polite dinner and a brief, chilly trip to the beach. The film’s first leg draws to an abrupt close with a surrealist flourish as Younghee appears to be whisked away by the stranger from the park. In the second part, Younghee, now in Gangneung, South Korea, sets about reconnecting with old friends: a slightly off-putting film programmer (Kwon Haehyo, who is also the male lead in The Day After) and his wife (Song Seonmi, of Woman on the Beach, 2006, and The Day He Arrives, 2011); a kindly, pushover café proprietor (Jeong Jaeyoung, Kim’s co-star twice over in Right Now, Wrong Then); and, through no effort of her own (and perhaps only in a dream), Sangwon’s crew, who are scouting locations for his next film not far from the beachside condo she moves into. Younghee falls asleep on the beach, alone though not quite at night, in a strikingly composed image in which her prone body describes the horizon, and she dreams of a bitterly accusatory reunion with Sangwon, revealing the full extent to which her heart has been shredded. “People must have had fun, raking them over the coals,” one of her friends says about the affair when she’s not in the room; Younghee and Sangwon’s relationship seems to have amply fed others’ appetite for gossip until there was nothing left.

The straightforward narrative of On the Beach at Night Alone departs from the modernist conceits of Yourself and Yours (2016) and Right Now, Wrong Then and the game-like structure of Hill of Freedom (2014)—which itself synthesized the transcultural humor of In Another Country and the rules-based narration of the short Hong made while finishing that film, List. On the Beach at Night Alone’s first section in Hamburg is dreary, cool, and meditatively sad; when Younghee returns to South Korea, the palette becomes noticeably sunnier (the Korean leg was shot by frequent Hong and Bong Joon Ho collaborator Kim Hyungkoo) as the film’s tone grows angrier. Its heroine is no longer content to merely let life happen to her, now doling out the criticisms and admonishments (“Men are all idiots”) just as quickly as she’d received them when her back was turned. One of her friends tells her that she seems “more mature, more like a woman” than she did before she left for Germany—as treacherous as her path has been, she is nevertheless becoming herself.

On the Beach at Night Alone, which derives its title from a Walt Whitman poem of the same name, is performed with disarming openness by Kim (whose performance earned her the Best Actress Silver Bear at Berlin). She radiates fragility and disdain, suffering and strength, world-weariness and resolve, in always unexpected ways. Hong’s deft work with actors is perennially underappreciated, and this film is as dependent upon its lead’s Herculean task as any in his oeuvre. Kim’s performances in Hong’s three 2017 films are all the more staggering when one considers Hong’s methods vis-a-vis his direction of actors, which he described to NYFF audiences with an amusing and appropriate degree of nonchalance. He doesn’t prepare his scripts during the month of preproduction he allots for himself, which is mostly spent scouting locations and recruiting actors willing to work according to his play-it-by-ear approach, but rather during the shoot itself. He writes each day’s dialogue for a few hours, starting at 4:00 a.m., then shares what he’s come up with with his actors, who have minimal time to memorize their lines before shooting commences, effectively preventing them from overinterpreting their roles and increasing the likelihood of unexpected, chance moments in their performances when the camera is rolling. As Hong himself readily admits, these self-imposed, high-pressure parameters paint him into a corner, but they lend the resultant performances an immediacy and spontaneity that reflect his actors’ proximity to their real-life bases.

Claire’s Camera

T he themes of infidelity and career suicide are given a redemptive twist in Hong’s next film, Claire’s Camera, filmed in just a few days at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Whereas On the Beach at Night Alone pushes into turbulent psychodrama, Claire’s Camera seems an intentionally, understatedly light sort-of detective film. Manhee (Kim Minhee), a “film sales person” (her self-description), is working the festival with several colleagues. She has recently had a dalliance with her company’s prize filmmaker, So Wansoo (Jeong Jinyeong), a hard-drinking director presenting his latest film at Cannes. Manhee’s boss (Chang Mihee), who herself has been romantically linked to director So, finds out and summarily terminates Manhee’s employment, her reasons shrouded in a cryptic equivocation about how she no longer trusts her.

Meanwhile, trenchcoat-clad schoolteacher and amateur poet/photographer Claire (Isabelle Huppert, working with Hong for a second time, after In Another Country, and speaking in English) appears on the scene, accompanying a filmmaker friend. Claire first encounters So at a café, and then they stop by a bookstore together, but they soon part ways. So proceeds to get absolutely trashed while Claire, wandering around Cannes, has a random meet-cute with Manhee. The two hit it off, beginning a charmingly shaggy-dog mystery whereby Claire and Manhee come to discover that Claire has met So and Manhee’s boss, and Manhee slowly begins to piece together the true reasons for her firing. It’s investigation as chance operation: neither Claire nor Manhee ever seem particularly driven to figure out what’s really going on, but fragment after fragment of the truth seems to drop into their laps all the same. The idea that “agreeing is great” is just one of the many points upon which they find themselves concurring amid their running exchange of almost surrealistically simple sentiments, as when Claire urges Manhee to try her hand at poetry because “you can write poems any time you want, it’s not difficult.”

But Claire’s Camera is neither about the destination nor the journey to get there so much as it’s about Manhee’s parallel, interior journey forward after her life has suddenly been thrust into a state of upheaval. Late in the film, she cuts one of her shirts into exactly 22 pieces with scissors and happily declares to Claire, “I feel great!” Claire’s Camera comes across as a sunny diversion, at least relative to the more somber On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After, but in a way that seems entirely appropriate to its protagonists’ quest to kill a little time, get to know each other, and try to find a means by which to simply feel better about the circumstances of their lives. If On the Beach at Night Alone is an existential punch to the jaw, Claire’s Camera is a well-timed icepack to control the swelling. (Hong shot On the Beach in 2015 and 2016, followed by Claire’s Camera and then The Day After.)

The Day After

Whereas On the Beach at Night Alone and Claire’s Camera deal primarily with the aftermath of an affair, The Day After concerns itself with one that hasn’t quite reached its end. Independent publisher Bongwan (Kwon Haehyo again) is accused by his wife (Cho Yunhee) of having an affair, which he denies in altogether unbelievable fashion before heading out into the night. From there Hong cuts to an earlier night, where we discover that Bongwan has indeed been having a typically drunken affair with a young employee (Kim Saebyeok). Then we’re back to the present (or so we think), as Bongwan seems to have a tearful panic attack. He arrives at the office of his company, Kang Publishing House, and is joined shortly thereafter by his new employee, Areum (Kim Minhee), an aspiring writer reporting for her first day on the job. She steps into the bathroom, and an invisible cut sends us back into the past as we receive a glimpse at what the workplace dynamic was like when Bongwan’s since-estranged mistress held Areum’s position. Bongwan’s hypocrisy is neatly encapsulated by his insistence that he and Areum address each other informally while at the same time preferring that she refer to him as “boss.” They share a long, philosophical lunch that rates among Hong’s very best dialogue scenes, the two trapped in a vacuum-sealed two-shot (no one else appears to be eating at the restaurant nor working there) as they discuss writing criticism, how to advance in the world of letters, and epistemology.

Later, Bongwan’s wife shows up at the office in a rage and, mistaking Areum for his lover, physically attacks her. Areum defends herself, and Bongwan reappears for a lengthy interrogation by his wife, who doesn’t believe for one second Bongwan’s (truthful) fess-up that Areum isn’t his mistress, it’s her first day at work, but he did have an affair with a previous employee. The drama of The Day After erupts when the mistress returns; Areum plots her exit from what’s clearly an abject work environment, and Bongwan squirms and flails about trying to figure out how to have his cake and eat it, too. Then, we seem to flash-forward to some indeterminate point in the future (by now we should know better than to assume we know where we stand chronologically in this temporally fragmented narrative) as Areum returns to pay Bongwan a visit. He explains that his affair and marriage have both ended, but that he has decided to go on living for the sake of his never-seen daughter. Finally Bongwan, in the film’s funniest and most mortifying moment, lets slip that he doesn’t recall who Areum is exactly, as Hong tips his hand: through Bongwan, Areum is able to see with absolute clarity the pathetic maneuverings and unthinking cruelty of men in the culture industry who treat what shred of power they have like a mandate to do whatever their libidos command.

The Day After marks one of Hong’s most audacious experiments with cinematic time. Upon first viewing, one can’t help but try to situate each of the film’s scenes, mostly rendered in Hong’s signature long-take two-shots, within an overarching chronology; upon second viewing, the logic by which these scenes have been sequenced comes to the fore—a sly invisible cut on a space shared by two distinct events here, a cut on a shared object there, but also linkages predicated on common moods, motifs, topics of conversation, and the blocking of performers. The result is a sense that the on-screen present contains its past and its future and is always liable, in an instant, to collapse back into the former or leap ahead to the latter. We never quite know whether we’re looking at the here-and-now, the then-and-there, or the right-now-wrong-then. (This becomes all the more impressive when one considers that Hong writes his films in sequence while shooting, and edits the films in a day or so—a process he likens to pruning the images.) Hong has always been interested in cinema’s relationship with time and repetition (as in the similarly scrambled Hill of Freedom, the bifurcated redo in Right Now, Wrong Then, and the multiple variations of events in The Day He Arrives), but The Day After distinguishes itself by treating chronological slippage as its primary narrative principle.

On the Beach at Night Alone and Claire’s Camera are littered with peripheral players, as are most of Hong’s films. The Day After confines itself almost entirely to its three central characters (its publishing house setting is most noteworthy for Hong in that none of the people on screen work within the film industry). The claustrophobia this engenders suggests the noose tightening around Bongwan’s neck and the walls wrongly closing in around Areum, forcing her to flee rather than stick around to fight on behalf of a man who clearly doesn’t deserve it. The two films that preceded it represented the grieving of a forbidden love’s end and then a coming-to-terms with its consequences, but The Day After finds Kim’s character seeing the world for what it is: unjust, dishonest, and, as Hong suggested in his Directors Dialogue at this year’s NYFF, held together by a disingenuous pact among all of us to believe that “everything is OK” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

After his eclectic yet cohesive, measured yet freewheeling 2017 output, one can safely assume his next move will simultaneously enhance and complicate what we think we know about contemporary cinema’s most reliably prolific artist. And, unlike his previous film to screen in the United States—Yourself and Yours, at last year’s New York Film Festival—all three discussed here are slated for release by Cinema Guild within a year’s time, beginning with On the Beach at Night Alone in November. As an alumnus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, perhaps a homecoming production in the United States is in the cards for director Hong? The idea came up in an audience Q&A during his New York visit, and he indicated he’d be up for it. I suspect we won’t have to wait very long to see whether he was being serious.

Dan Sullivan is the assistant programmer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.