The drab realism of Hong Sang-soo’s films is more testing apparatus than window. His romantic narratives foreground structural operations (doublings, loops, intersections) in a gamely way; a set template of characters and situations also contributes to the impression of his films as moral prisms.
Oki’s Movie, one of only three movies the South Korean auteur has released in the last two years, is split into four sections of perplexing relation, but which together establish a lucid distance from a conventional love triangle. Doubters look upon Hong’s prodigious output as evidence of artistic complacency, while admirers point to the centrality of revision in his work (it’s the process by which he peels the onion of art in life and life in art). What sometimes gets lost in the discussion is that Hong’s narratives still have a delightful capacity to surprise. Oki’s Movie looks like it was shot fast and cheap, but its fluid shifts in perspective and rueful examination of the storytelling impulse are very fine indeed.
Oki’s Movie begins on a telling note of displacement when the wife of Jingu (Lee Seon-kyun) wife calls him by the wrong name as they leave their apartment. He’s the familiar Hong type: a ragingly insecure filmmaker-professor who interacts with everyone, whether stranger or wife, with the same grubby defensiveness. Within a few short scenes, we’re already launched into the inevitable whiskey-fueled meltdown, as Jingu impoliticly confronts his mentor, Professor Song (Moon Sung-guen), with another faculty member’s accusations. The pacing of this long take degradation is characteristically precise, with Jingu’s narrow perspective neatly reflected in Hong’s zooms and pans.
Jingu feels threatened by three women in the film’s first act (his wife, a stranger who snaps his photo, and a young woman who confronts him with a previous romantic entanglement during a Q&A following one of his films), but none are named Oki. By the time we begin to wonder about this, the opening credits are rolling again. Confusingly, we begin this second segment with Jingu and Song watching the end credits of a film (Jingu’s) on a computer monitor. We wonder if the previous act was a film-within-the-film, but this seems paradoxical when we realize that there has been a shift back in time. Here Jingu is Song’s student rather than his junior colleague. In any case, Oki (Jung Yumi) is just outside the door.
We can tell from her charged hello with Song that there’s something between them. A moment later Jingu lurches into his obdurate seduction. Eventually he cajoles Oki into bed, though Hong’s slipshod narrative keeps us from assigning any kind of finality to their embrace.
Even as we expect the narrative to upend the male initiative, it still comes as a tonic to have the movie turned over to Oki for the film’s final, eponymously titled act. In voiceover, Oki sets up the kind of controlled experiment Hong thrives upon: she will cut between two identical park strolls taken with both men to better judge her relationship with each.
One of Hong’s modes of indirection is to plant ideas which could easily be taken as reflections upon his own filmmaking in the mouths of all his characters. He surely identifies with both Jingu’s narcissism and Oki’s analytical rigor, in other words, but it’s only in this last segment that Hong admits a degree of lyricism into the film. The heretofore flat winter light softens and arches towards twilight. There’s real poignancy to Oki’s reflections, but it only comes when we’re most deeply embedded in the artifice of Hong’s narrative construction. “Things repeat themselves with differences I can’t understand,” she muses. Having specified the conditions of the repetitions doesn’t make resolution any less elusive. The only solution is to go on making films.