SFIAAFF: These monsters are real

Soju, bad sex, and deja vu in the films of Hong Sang-soo

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"Even though it's difficult to be human, let's not turn into monsters." This is said as a reprimand to Gyung-soo (Kim Sang-kyung), a mildly successful stage actor, by one of his colleagues early in South Korean director Hong Sang-soo's Turning Gate (2002). Gyung-soo repeats the words twice more in the film — first to make amends with his old friend Sung-woo after a liquor-soaked spat and then over the phone in a failed attempt to shame the woman, Myung-sook (Ye Ji-won), who eventually leaves him for Sung-woo.

Yes, it's difficult to be human, especially in a Hong film, given that his characters' attempts to satiate their own emotional needs often devolve into cruel and childish displays of selfishness. With each repetition Gyung-soo seems to be reassuring himself that he understands the significance of his friend's words, but with each successive film, Hong seems to suggest that maybe no one really does understand.

Hong writes in his director's statement for his most recent feature, Woman on the Beach (2006), "Repetition is a great framework and basis for filmmaking. On the other hand, if repetition is part of a person's behavior, we can take that as an indication of obsession. I wanted to see through repetition, but also to reduce repetition." Like Sung-woo in Turning Gate or Woody Allen throughout his messily imbricated career, Hong's films grapple with the question of seeing through repetition: can we ever do something over as an intervention rather than a symptom? It is the problem many of the characters in Hong's films — particularly the men — struggle with, stumble over, deny, and often by movie's end, are unexpectedly forced to confront.

Indeed, Hong's entire oeuvre seems like evidence of a repetition compulsion to tell variations of the same story. It's a tale that goes something like this: an unexpected reunion between two middle-aged buddies gradually sours when old insecurities and jealousies are played out in a pathetic rivalry over a woman, resulting in innumerably consumed bottles of soju (real), some of the most spectacularly uncomfortable sex scenes ever committed to film (fake), and damaged egos all around.

In The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) we revisit the popular vacation locale twice in two subtly interlocking narratives told from the perspectives of a college professor and his student who recently ended their affair. Later in the aforementioned Turning Gate, Gyung-soo falls in love with a stranger on a train, though he's clearly trying to regain his crushed pride after Myung-sook uses and drops him. Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) focuses on two old friends reuniting to see the woman they both once loved. It's a meeting that leaves all parties disappointed. In 2005's Tale of Cinema (Hong at his most meta) a sad-sack filmmaker attempts to re-create the courtship portrayed in his rival director's film — which he claims was inspired by events from his own life — with its lead actress to predictably lukewarm effect.

Watching Hong's films back-to-back is a bit like experiencing one of the protracted drinking jags his characters frequently undertake. You emerge bleary-eyed with a hangover from the desperation and ugliness you've witnessed. Exactly what happened and who got fucked (over) remain a blur, but the mundane conversations and chance encounters that incrementally and elliptically contributed to the general unpleasantness are strangely crystal clear. Such a viewing binge sets into relief the careful orchestration behind the happenstance realism often attributed to Hong's matter-of-fact style of filmmaking.

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