Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hong Movies

"Lost in the Mountains," Hong Sang-soo's segment from Visitors (Hong Sang-soo / Naomi Kawase / Lav Diaz, 2009)

Every time Hong Sang-soo gets behind a camera, he sets out to make the same movie. That isn't to say every Hong movie is the same. Maybe every time he sets out, he fails. Maybe his career will become the story of a man who attempts to make the perfect autobiography and produces only beautiful fictions. Maybe Hong's self-critical aparatus is too strong, maybe he is too consciously attempting to make the same film over and over again to actually make the same film over and over again.

While countless writers and directors repeat themselves, thinking each repetition is an original, every one of Hong's copies boldly veers off in a new direction. The variations are not subtle: from the same basic material, he can produce a starkly schematic movie like The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, a direct and fluid one like A Tale of Cinema or a dense and massive one like Night and Day. The elements remain the same: too much drinking leading to too much talking; surly filmmakers and artists, often educated in the United States; people who say too much when they should keep their mouths shut and keep silent when it's their turn to speak; friendships that exist more in theory or history (in Hong, the present is always the end of the past) than in practice; characters who are defined by whether they smoke, don't smoke or say they don't smoke but then bum cigarettes. A universe of puffy jackets (South Korea always looks so damn cold in Hong movies) and half-empty bottles. Hong's characters are always saved by their pettiness. If they were ever frank, it would destroy their lives.

Besides the subjects and techniques (lengthy takes that either frame a single person in the center, two people on opposite ends of the frame or three people forming a triangle, a camera that moves only to follow characters and, since around A Tale of Cinema, a distinctive and forceful use of the zoom), what all of Hong's films have in common is that they're all at least pretty good.

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