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Hong Sang-soo Continues to Make a Mess of Things With “The Day After”

Well, there he goes again. Hong Sang-soo’s last couple of years have been absurdly prolific even by his standards, and now he’s back with The Day After, the third film he’s released stateside in six months. It’s not hard to see why he’s been so productive of late: The Day After continues the obsessively self-analytical (and often self-flagellating) tenor of Hong’s recent films, as he once again mulls the impact of his very public affair with star Kim Min-hee and the ensuing collapse of his marriage.

The Day After has little of the melancholy poetry of November’s On the Beach at Night Alone, which looked at the life of a young actress (played by Kim Min-hee herself) who had found herself adrift in the wake of a scandalous public romance with a noted older filmmaker. Nor does it offer the playful magic of Claire’s Camera, which had Isabelle Huppert wandering the beaches and cafés of Cannes, drifting guilelessly into a Korean film industry love triangle. This latest effort is in many ways a harsher, crueler work — perhaps because this time the emotional backbone of the film runs through the man in the relationship, an acclaimed middle-aged writer and small publishing house owner named Kim Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo), whom we see in the opening scene doing his damnedest not to answer his embittered wife’s questions about whether or not he’s having an affair.

The film’s intricate structure then mostly follows the protagonist’s experiences with two younger women, Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee), his beautiful assistant at the publishing house, and Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byeok), his previous beautiful assistant and former mistress. Telling his tale out of order, Hong allows us to see echoes between the two relationships, but without initially letting on whether the relationships we’re seeing will prove similar or in contrast to each other. We see Bong-wan talk to Ah-reum at the office, getting to know her and discussing grand issues of faith, and love, and the power of the written word. We see an agonizing conversation between Chang-sook and Bong-wan where she accuses him of cowardice for not telling his wife that he’s in love with another woman.

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The back-and-forth time hops are such that it’s hard to tell where one relationship ends and the other begins. Does Bong-wan covet his new assistant the way he coveted the previous one? Given what we know, his avuncular, casual approach to Ah-reum — even asking that they not address each other in formal language — could easily be understood as setting the stage for a romantic overture. At one point, we see his wife come to the office and confront Ah-reum, thinking she’s the employee that her husband has been seeing. When Bong-wan protests to his wife that it’s Ah-reum’s first day at the office, is he actually telling the truth? By disjointing his structure, Hong calls into question his protagonist’s trustworthiness — as if even his honest, genuine moments have been corrupted by his infidelity and lies.

Of all of Hong’s recent efforts, The Day After is the one that feels the most like a therapy session: There are repeated shots of Bong-wan crying and wailing, and the film refuses ever to show him in a generous or kind light. (Indeed, he seems so pathetic that at times it’s hard to see what would have drawn any woman to him.) There’s something caustic and brittle about this movie, maybe even a little impoverished: The imaginative and compassionate leaps of Hong’s other recent films — which spin stories out of the wounded women in the filmmaker’s life — are nowhere to be found. Still, the candor is impressive, and the pain feels real. The Day After may not be a particularly great film, but it does feel like a necessary one.

The Day After
Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Cinema Guild
Opens May 11, Film Society of Lincoln Center

 

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“Claire’s Camera” Star Isabelle Huppert on the Unpredictable Magic of Hong Sang-soo

The unexpectedly perfect pairing of actress Isabelle Huppert and director Hong Sang-soo makes for cinematic gold once again in their latest collaboration, Claire’s Camera, whose run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center continues to be held over. Huppert (whom Melissa Anderson profiled for the Voice in 2016) has always been game for treading unfamiliar territory in her bold acting endeavors, and she here eases into the role of the charming foreigner, even as she sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the mostly-Korean cast (as she did in Hong’s 2012 In Another Country). She’s the outsider yet again, though she’s technically on home territory in the France-set Claire’s Camera. Hong, meanwhile, is the South Korean heir to the influence of chatty French directors like Éric Rohmer, and is also beloved by the crowd at the Cannes Film Festival, which is where the breezy yet profound new film takes place. Like much of Hong’s recent work, Claire’s Camera traces an older director’s affair with a younger woman (played by Hong’s muse, Kim Min-hee). Huppert’s Claire walks around Cannes with a Polaroid camera, taking photos of strangers, an act her character views as life-changing. Huppert spoke to the Voice about appearing in another of Hong’s quick-turnaround masterpieces, the meaningful misnomer of the title, and, possibly, acting in Korean next.

I last saw you in Mrs. Hyde, so it was fun to see you playing a teacher again in Claire’s Camera — and wearing a similar outfit, even.

Yeah, absolutely.

You don’t set things on fire in this one, though!

No, no, that’s for sure.

I would love to hear what the whole shooting process was like during the Cannes Film Festival.

Hong usually works in very few days. This is really something that he’s used to. So we shot the movie in six or seven days. We were slightly off the main street where all the people are gathered. So, it’s very exciting, because we can hear the festival, mainly because we talk about the festival, and, you know, I [have that line], “Oh, this is my first time to the festival.”

A lot of people laugh at that.

Right. You would think it would be, like, my 25th time at Cannes. And so, everybody laughs in France, too. We see a film company presenting a movie, and we understand that all the Korean people involved in the story were there for the festival, but in fact, we never see the festival. Also I find it so magical that at some point you can even mistake the Cannes beach for a Korean beach. It’s very gray, not really what you expect from the Mediterranean Sea. And it’s very small, like a Korean seashore. I did another Hong film previously, In Another Country, which we shot in Korea, and the beach where I walk during that film is very much alike, similar to the beach in Cannes. My home country is really a magician because it brings a little bit of Korea in Cannes — not only spiritually, but also geographically and aesthetically!

Even if you’re shooting in your own country, you’re still sort of a foreigner in the movie, like you were in In Another Country. What does that context bring out in your character?

Absolutely. Well, I think she’s more like a mix between a deus ex machina figure and a fairy. She organized meetings and got people back together. It’s really a metaphor for me about moviemaking. But at the same time, it’s about the power of images. I mean, this is something that runs around the theme, but that is clearly stated at some point when she says, in order to change people, you have to watch them really, really carefully, and this is, in a way, what you expect from moviemaking. You know, just to watch people, and try to make them better, or understand them by paying attention to them. In the film, I work with cameras. And of course it’s not a movie camera, it’s a photo camera. But in French, there’s a misunderstanding, and I think it’s intentional. In English, “camera” can be a photo camera or a movie camera. But in French, “caméra” is only for a movie camera. And I’m sure that Hong is smart enough to have understood that there was a slight confusion between the words, because, in fact, I’m not using a movie camera, but just a photo camera. But since I’m sure he knows that, we present Claire in the position of the filmmaker in the film, so it doesn’t really matter that there was a little misunderstanding about the word.

Wow, I didn’t realize that! That’s such a great way to think about your character, because Hong loves to play around with time, rewinding time and such, and you are the character who does that. Do you have a similar philosophy about photography as your character — about how it changes a person?

I don’t think it’s really changed people, no I don’t. But yes, because at some point if I take your picture, you are not the same person anymore. I mean, it’s a very mysterious line. You make them feel better, because that’s about human connections and relationships, you know? So, if I watch, yes, see, I’m not the same person anymore. Just because I paid a little attention to you.

How was it working on this movie in such a short amount of time, given Hong’s notorious script changes?

There is no script with Hong. There is no script at all. He just likes to feel…. And so, you don’t basically really know what the movie is about. He would only give you a little bit of information. For instance, he told me that I would be a teacher. Then, day by day, he would give you the scene, and he writes the scene each evening, and the next day you would receive the scene. Then it’s a lot of work because nothing is improvised. It’s very much written and it’s really his dialogue, so each morning you’d learn the lines.

What’s the story behind the song Kim Min-hee sings to your character? It’s so funny.

Oh, that’s so funny, that’s so sweet, yes, I know…. [singing] One, one, one. Two, two, two. Three, three, three. Four, four, four. So funny. But I have no idea. It might be something they just made up. I think that this movie is so charming, and so funny, and so light, and so deep, and so moving. Like that scene where I tell her I’m a recent widow; my companion just passed away. That’s really very moving.

A lot of people tend to read autobiographical things into Hong’s movies.

I think that in all his movies, there is a lot of autobiographical material. But all of them are kind of twisted. And even if it’s autobiographical material, it’s not sometimes completely obvious, and it’s not a literal self, about himself. But to some degree, yes, it is sometimes quite autobiographical. It’s Michelangelo Antonioni who said, “all movies are autobiographical.” I like this quote. It might be very true.

“This movie is so charming, and so funny, and so light,” Isabelle Huppert says of Hong Sang-soo’s Cannes-set film.

The man who plays the director also looks so much like Hong.

Oh, my God, he looks exactly like him, I know.

People often compare Hong to Éric Rohmer. Do you find that fair?

Yes, especially on that movie, because that movie’s a clear reference to Claire’s Knee. So yes, in the sense that it’s very verbal. On the other hand, I think he’s also different from Rohmer. Hong is poetic in a different way. I mean, it’s certainly a compliment to him, because I can tell why people refer to his moviemaking as a Rohmerian way of doing it.

I thought the title could be a Rohmer reference and also an homage to Claire Denis.

Yes, sure, possibly, because I know that Claire is a very good friend.

You’ve worked with many amazing directors. What sets apart Hong from the others you’ve collaborated with?

He’s very special. No one in the world makes little masterpieces like him in such a short time. It’s unique. The way he makes films, I can’t think of anybody else that they can be compared to. I think even in his own country, he is also very different. South Korea has all sorts of brilliant filmmakers such as Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, but Hong is so different from anyone else. Completely singular.

Have you picked up any Korean from him?

No. No. Annyeonghaseyo, I think that’s the only word I know. That’s hello, bonjour. I should learn. In the first film, it was the subject of the film that I was a total stranger, a foreigner, being literally submerged in the Korean world. It was the heart of the film that I wasn’t supposed to understand what they were saying.

I was going to say, in your next Hong film, you could just speak only in Korean.

Yup, absolutely. Maybe I should suggest it.

Do you have a personal favorite Hong movie, besides the ones that you’ve appeared in?

I love Woman Is the Future of a Man. And Right Now, Wrong Then.

Do you have any plans to work with Hong again?

Not in the near future, but with this film he called me a month before and said, “Do you want to come and shoot a movie in five days?” And I said, “Yeah, OK, I’ll do it.” It was my last day doing a play in Paris, and the next morning I flew to Cannes and started shooting while presenting Paul Verhoeven’s Elle at the festival. He’s very unpredictable; he could call me anytime. If he calls me and I can do it, I certainly will.

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The Magic of Isabelle Huppert Powers Hong Sang-soo’s “Claire’s Camera”

Short and modest even by director Hong Sang-soo’s standards, the 69-minute Claire’s Camera unfolds as a whimsical little riff on trust, infidelity, and the reality-altering magnetism of Isabelle Huppert. And yet, while it’s certainly the most effervescent of the three pictures the prolific Korean filmmaker premiered on the festival circuit in 2017 — the first was On the Beach at Night Alone, which opened theatrically in the U.S last November; then The Day After, coming to theaters this May — there are wells of real sadness and even anger in this film.

Set in Cannes (which, big surprise, is also where it premiered), Claire’s Camera opens with a trio of scenes depicting the firing of a young woman, Man-hee (Kim Min-hee), from her job at a Korean film sales company. This is more narrative drama than Hong usually provides, but he makes sure to disorient us temporally. First, we see Man-hee at the office, as her boss, Nam Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee), asks if she’d like to take a break and get some coffee with her. As the two women leave, we jump a few days forward in time and see Man-hee telling a co-worker about how she then proceeded to get fired by Nam; then we double back to see the dreadful coffee date itself. Each exchange unfolds in Hong’s typically understated but chatty style: a casual conversation, usually presented in a relatively wide two-shot, taking in the characters’ subtle shifts in body language.

As usual, most of Hong’s film is built around such two- and three-person exchanges, and each conversation has a slightly off-balance dynamic. More often than not, one character tries their damnedest to be carefree — even funny — while the other wears a mask of gravity and concern. Ironically, it’s usually the person trying to make light of things who’s the one being hurt: When her boss grimly tells her she’s being let go, Man-hee plays it calm and cheery, even taking a selfie with the woman to mark the end of their long working relationship. Meanwhile, Nam couches her dismissal of Man-hee in the bullshit language of consensual separation. “Let’s stop working together…and if you don’t mind, let’s not wait until we get back to Seoul,” she tells her, as if they’re somehow equal partners in this exchange — conveniently ignoring the reality that by rendering Man-hee jobless in the middle of France, the older woman has left her mostly penniless and unable to return home to Korea. Hong has always been a master at capturing telling emotional details, but perhaps his real artistry lies in his ability to show how we cover up those details: His cinema is one of conveying that which is unseen and unheard but deeply felt.

Man-hee’s dismissal has been triggered by her brief affair with So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young), an acclaimed Korean filmmaker whose latest film is screening at Cannes. The twist is that Nam has also been sleeping with Director So for years now, and considers Man-hee’s actions a betrayal. Never mind that Man-hee didn’t know about their involvement, and that the real betrayer here is Director So himself, who confesses that, like all good male Hong protagonists, he’s a mess when he’s drunk; alas, as a filmmaker on the verge of greater international recognition, he’s too important for Nam to get rid of so easily.

Into the picture walks Claire (played by guess who), a French high school teacher and amateur photographer on vacation in Cannes, who snaps the distraught Man-Hee’s picture on the beach and then meets Director So at a local café. Unassuming to an almost hilarious degree, Claire has an uncanny ability to draw truths out of people, and to take unguarded, surprisingly revealing portraits of them. She believes that the camera has the power to change things; “If I take a photo of you, you’re not the same person anymore,” she tells Director So. Later, she reiterates the point to Man-hee: “The only way to change things is to look at everything really slowly.” What exactly she means by any of this is left tantalizingly unclear.

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Even though Claire’s Camera consists of seemingly simple, unfussy exchanges between the same three characters in different arrangements — Claire with Director So; Claire with Man-hee; Claire with Director So and Nam; Man-hee with Director So; and so on — what emerges eventually is not so direct: a playful meditation on the transformative nature of art. Bound to a schedule of premieres and various demands on his time, Director So — who bears more than a passing resemblance to director Hong himself, he of the Cannes premieres and the much-publicized affair with his actress Kim Min-hee — has been sucked into a world of expectation, transaction, and incipient celebrity. Late in the film, So stands on a balcony, uncomfortable and awkward in a tuxedo (mandatory dress for evening galas at Cannes), and chastises Man-hee for wearing jean shorts. “No matter how people see you, just live as yourself,” he barks at her, but it’s hard not to think that he’s secretly telling himself off.

Meanwhile, Claire, the amateur free spirit, can float around and snap images of whatever she likes. And the film suggests — in its own unadorned, unassuming way — that there is a kind of magic in her camera, that through her anonymous yet personal art she is still able to change the very nature of reality. Does she possess a power that Hong Sang-soo, the internationally acclaimed artist who now does the film festival circuit year round with his work, fear he himself may be on the verge of losing? For all its airy lightness and apparent simplicity, it’s hard not to watch Claire’s Camera and sense beneath its placid surfaces the fretful voice of a filmmaker who longs to return to the elements of his art.

Claire’s Camera
Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Cinema Guild
Opens March 9, Film Society of Lincoln Center

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The Great Hong Sang-soo on Getting Personal in His Movies — and the State of Korean Beer

Though notoriously taciturn about his personal life, Hong Sang-soo has a way of putting it all on display in his movies. His latest, On the Beach at Night Alone, stars his muse and real-life partner, Kim Min-hee; their romance inspired a lot of Korean tabloid gossip the past couple of years, since at the start of it Hong was married. The new film, like most of Hong’s, invites speculation: Kim’s character, Young-hee, finds herself in a relationship with a married filmmaker, who, when the subject of adultery comes up, asks why two people in love should be considered immoral.

The prolific filmmaker has shown three features in festivals this year alone (including Claire’s Camera and The Day After, which served as a nice companion piece to On the Beach during the New York Film Festival). On the Beach at Night Alone, which gets its U.S. release on November 17, is perhaps his most personal yet. Many will point to it as the pinnacle of Hong’s filmography so far, as it boasts stellar performances and familiar Hong trademarks like dual storylines (he filmed the first half in Germany and the latter in South Korea), as well as a more spiritual and melancholic investigation of his recurring themes of love and regret. Hong pulls all this off without sacrificing his fondness for a good gag. During NYFF this year, I sat down with the South Korean auteur to talk about religion, Korean snacks, and just how personal his movie really is.

There’s a religious theme in On the Beach and The Day After. Would you consider yourself religious?

There are important things in life that we cannot really explain, and so we make up some explanation. There are two ways to go: Become nihilistic, or start talking with someone who’s presumably in control of everything.

Like praying?

Yeah, praying. I went through all those states, trying to make up some explanation. I have to acknowledge our inability to explain. But I always wanted to talk to someone. I don’t go to church or accept any established religion, but I just said to myself, “Why not? I want to talk to him or her.” I guess it’s not a gendered thing, it’s an absolute thing. It feels good. I always had an inclination to talk to God, but as I grew up, I learned to negate the falseness of the establishment. I’m directly talking to someone, and it feels so natural. Why should I give up this natural desire?

In On the Beach at Night Alone, you start with Kim Min-hee’s character in Hamburg, Germany. When you put someone in a foreign country (like you did with Isabelle Huppert in In Another Country), what do you think that reveals about their character?

I mean, even though when they are in their own country, it reveals something about them. They constantly reveal something, as I reveal myself constantly.

Your films often use two different timelines, a reality and a dream sequence, or women who are doppelgängers. What about this idea of duality fascinates you?

I think comparison is a very basic instinct for us. But we compare all the time. Comparison is very important. If we keep comparing, we end up making up a value system which is not appropriate for life, but sometimes we compare and come out with a better understanding. But we keep comparing, but maybe that’s why I do that.

At the end of the movie, Young-hee says, “Personal stories are so boring.” And this movie feels so personal. Was that a self-critique? And how does it feel watching Kim Min-hee deliver that line?

When someone makes a so-called personal film that is boring to other people, then the filmmaker will be criticized. But if someone makes a personal film that’s so interesting to other people, then that someone will praise you. I try to use my own material as much as I can, but when I make a film, I know I’m making a film, I’m not making a comment or an autobiographical representation of my life. You don’t have to worry about distinction — worry about how to balance and harmonize all these elements, how you think about rhythm and trying to be honest in spirit. That’s the important thing. When you see films of mine, people tend to think it’s very personal [laughs].

I have to ask about the window wiper in the movie (there is a gag where a random man is seen wiping a hotel window for a hilariously long time). Why was that scene so long? Don’t get me wrong — it was so funny, and I couldn’t stop laughing.

He was my cinematographer in the first part of the movie. I brought two people to Germany: one boom man with a recorder, and the other was the cinematographer. And I had two other assistants. I didn’t bring any male actors. When they arrived I wanted to test the camera, so we went to the park and I let them walk while I was looking at them through the camera lens. Then I told the cameraman, “Can you just go up to the main actors and ask them what time it is, in Korean?” I was holding the camera. I didn’t know it would be the first part of the movie, and I didn’t know how to use it. I was kind of stuck there. I came back to Korea, and I wanted to shoot something. I asked people how they felt about this part I shot in Germany, and they liked it, so I decided to use it as the first part. Then I started shooting something in Gangneung, [South] Korea, and connected it.

And the cinematographer made another cameo in Korea?

Yes. In the second part, the cinematographer was different. I brought the first cinematographer and he already guessed he might be used in a scene again. He had all these costumes — he was expecting it. So I came up with this wiping-window scene.

Do you give your actors a lot of room to breathe with the script?

They’re following the script, but how they interpret it is up to them. I give them little direction. Only rarely do I feel obliged to do that. Sometimes I’ll monitor them line by line. Usually I give them very little direction. Usually I like how they do it. Only when they are going in a very wrong direction I tell them, “Maybe that’s not the way to go.”

You’re very well-received overseas. Do you still pay attention to critical reception in Korea?

I read some reviews. I consider some opinions very important.

Do you feel like Korean reviews are too muddled with your personal life?

These days, yes. It’s true. But, you know, what can I do? I have to just go through this period.

I know you mentioned wanting to shoot in the United States also…

Someone asked me that in the audience. I studied in the U.S., so I have some personal memories I think can be used as material.

I go to parties here where people bring soju, and they say it’s because of your movies. Are you actually a big fan of the drink?

No, I used to drink soju all the time, but I stopped drinking it three or four years ago. From that point I changed to makkuli [Korean rice wine].

I noticed you have Max beer in this movie and a comment about beer being better in Korea.

That’s my personal opinion.

Korean beer is really bad!

Now it’s getting better. I don’t drink beer, but people say Korean beer is getting better.

Another food detail I love is when Kim Min-hee is cooking Spam. I love Spam, Koreans love Spam, but people here think it’s gross.

It tastes great! Eat it with rice and kimchi.

I know you’re friendly with Claire Denis. Have you seen her new film, Let the Sunshine In? I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people call it “Claire Denis’s Hong Sang-soo film.”

Really? I never heard that. Really? OK, I really need to see the film.

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“On the Beach at Night Alone” Is an Agonizingly Personal Portrait of an Affair

The central image of Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone is that of a woman quietly curled up and lying motionless on the sand, her back turned to us. It’s not repeated all that often in the film — we just see it twice, really — but it is echoed in other moments, in particular one scene when we see the same woman, Young-hee (Kim Min-hee), unexpectedly stop and kneel down quietly in front of a small bridge, as if in some sort of silent, sudden prayer. In a chatty film that otherwise consists of people walking and talking or sitting and talking — their conversation often lubricated by food and drink, as in much of Hong Sang-soo’s work — the spectacle of a woman communing quietly with the ground, whether in prayer, despair, or hope, speaks to an indefinable sense of longing, an added layer of metaphysical sadness enveloping the picture.

There’s no real story on the surface of On the Beach at Night Alone. The first half-hour or so follows Young-hee in Hamburg, Germany, visiting a divorced friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), as they hang out at a market, visit a musician-bookseller, and join a German couple for dinner. The rest of the film follows Young-hee back in Korea, where she interacts with other people from her life. That’s what happens onscreen, though there’s an emotional narrative here as well, one that’s hinted at subtly at first and then gradually gathers prominence: Young-hee is an actress who has recently had a torrid fling with a director. We hear mentions of a man possibly coming to visit her in the Hamburg scenes; he never does. The emotional legacy of the affair comes to color all her interactions — until she actually sits with the director at a drunken (and possibly imaginary) dinner near the film’s end and confronts him, prompting him to have a teary breakdown.

Some real-life context may be helpful at this point. Director Hong and his younger star Kim Min-hee became gossip fodder in Korea last year when it was alleged that they were having an affair — a relationship that they confirmed earlier this year. It resulted in the actress being dropped by her managers and portrayed in the press as some sort of homewrecker. One could see On the Beach at Night Alone therefore as a kind of penance — a reflection on the hurt Hong caused his lover, whose melancholy dominates the picture, and a reckoning with his own inadequacies, particularly in that final dinner scene.

But even if you don’t know anything about the director’s life, Hong’s films have always seemed personal — their candor, their naturalistic and lived-in rhythms feel like they’re coming from a place of stark honesty. Knowing the real-life inspiration for On the Beach at Night Alone may help one appreciate the film’s moral trajectory a bit better. But the movie’s charms work on a much more immediate level, in the way the film captures the ever-shifting dynamic between men and women, and the difficulty of matching one’s feelings to one’s words. The early Hamburg sequences often hint at the challenges of speaking in a foreign language, with the programmatic, phrasebook quality of the conversations. (“It’s so delicious.” “Thank you very much. It’s really easy to make and then it’s really good food. Do you eat pasta in Korea?” “Yes. I was really hungry.” “You can have more if you like.”)

In the Korean scenes, on the other hand, where there is no actual language barrier, people either make feinting glances at honesty — dancing agonizingly around important subjects — or they go all-in, blurting out more than they want. Though Hong films these scenes in his typically casual, unfussy manner (long takes, simple masters, etc.) the imbalance between thought and action keeps everything on edge. You never quite know where one of these conversations will go. Hong examines the turmoil of human interaction — the pain of honesty as well as the frustration of inexpressiveness. Which, in the end, might be why the image we carry away is its loneliest, quietest one.

On the Beach at Night Alone
Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Cinema Guild
Opens November 17, Metrograph and Film Society of Lincoln Center

 

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In Another Country

Hong Sang-soo’s films consist of a few familiar items—empty Soju bottles and seaside views among them—being minutely rearranged, with a niggling attention to obscure issues of composition that, seen in passing, might almost be taken for monomania or mild brain damage. Hong’s 13th film, In Another Country, is aptly structured as a sequence of reworked drafts. Composed of a series of long-shot setups interrupted by late-period Rossellini zooms, it’s a triptych of stories set in a beachfront boarding house. Each segment introduces the same cast of stock characters—the caretaker (Jung Yumi), a philandering film director and his pregnant wife (Kwon Hae-hyo and Moon So-ri), and a visiting Frenchwoman named Anne. Anne is played by a flitting and fretful Isabelle Huppert in multiple incarnations: as a filmmaker, as a married woman meeting her lover for a rendezvous, and as a recently divorced woman looking to escape her life. Making her way about in imprecise common-ground English, the crux of each segment is Anne’s glancing, socially discouraged encounter with a demonstrative, friendly lifeguard (Yu Jun-sang). As ever, Hong is attentive to the particular caginess of male-female relationships in his culture, here a covetousness that masquerades as protectiveness: “You must be careful about that kind of Korean man” various Annes are advised—”that kind” invariably meaning those who aren’t around to speak up for themselves. The cumulative impression is of figures being lightly traced in the sand only to be inevitably washed away, intentionally ephemeral and quite charming for it.

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La Vie au Ranch

A series of yakking, lipsticked cartoon mouths open La Vie au Ranch, a film that puts too much faith in the appeal of its garrulous, aimless leads. Sophie Letourneur’s first feature, screening as part of BAM’s “Salut les Jeunes! Young French Cinema” series, centers on a trio of Left Bank twentysomething women—housemates and university students who appear to have no responsibilities beyond texting and nursing hangovers. Sharing writing duties with Delphine Agut, Letourneur, a few years shy of 30 when she made the film, drew from her own early 20s for the script, which was also shaped by the interplay among her cast, nonprofessionals who are friends in real life. The result is less psychodrama than fitfully interesting sociology, the film’s dialogue often sounding like a transcription of Facebook-status updates. Only one character, Pam (Sarah-Jane Sauvegrain, who could pass for Jeanne Balibar’s kid sister), seen briefly at her ailing granny’s bedside, appears to have a fleeting concern for anyone outside herself. The extreme narcissism is age-appropriate, but is the utter lack of curiosity? Despite a spot-on scene of two guys at a café trying to one-up each other about Hong Sang-soo films, Pam and her pals—unlike, say, Lena Dunham’s orbit—seem to have never engaged in another rite of passage: reading a book.

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Another Day, Another Drink in The Day He Arrives

You don’t have to understand the intricacies of Korean manners to enjoy Hong Sang-soo’s subtly mortifying comedies. Nor do you have to be on familiar terms with the effects of alcohol—but it certainly helps.

The Day He Arrives, the prolific Hong’s 12th film, begins with Sungjoon (Yu Jun-sang), a former film director now retired to a professorship at a provincial school, returning for a visit to Seoul, his former home. Failing to connect with a friend, Sungjoon instead gets embarrassingly blotto with a group of students and drops in unannounced on an ex-girlfriend, Kyungjin (Kim Bo-kyung). He tearfully confesses to his dismal loneliness without her, stays the night, and leaves the next morning without betraying even a trace of the prior evening’s vulnerability.

Sungjoon goes out drinking on the three nights that follow, now with his friend Youngho (Kim Sang-joong) and Youngho’s pretty colleague Boram (Song Sun-mi)—both film people—in tow. They frequent an otherwise empty bar where the proprietress, Yejeon, bears a Xerox resemblance to Kyungjin; soon enough, she falls into bed with Sungjoon as well. (Bo-kyung plays the double role.)

The name of Yejeon’s bar is translated as “Novel,” an ironic pun, for there is little novelty to the schedule of Sungjoon and his circle, so little progress between their evenings that they could almost be shuffled into any order. Conversational cues are reheated like leftovers. Each night, Sungjoon plays the same piece on the piano and silently takes melancholy text messages from Kyungjin.

The Day He Arrives is shot in black-and-white HD, almost entirely in long takes, which sit back and observe the conversational flow of Hong’s particular brand of barroom philosophizing. “Random things happen for no reason in our lives,” goes a typical bit from Sungjoon. “We choose a few and form a line of thought . . . made by all these dots, which we call a reason.”

In filmmaking, these “dots” are called scenes, and they do illustrate something in The Day He Arrives, like what the great critic Manny Farber found in Eric Rohmer’s 1969 My Night at Maud’s: “Moving along through small, unpointed, often unconnected events, it gets to the component parts of this class’s life.” Farber was talking about cultivated French provincials, but Hong does much the same as ethnographer of South Korean cognoscenti. And like Rohmer, Hong is wonderful with atmospheric effects, using whirling snowfalls to place his characters’ inchoate longing in relief. (There is a lingering morning-after scene of the principals waiting on the curb for a cab in light, damp snow that is simply perfect.)

“I saw my limits,” says Sungjoon of his retreat from active life. “It’s the same thing as finding yourself.” Something similar could be said of Hong’s filmmaking—the specificity of his subject matter gives his seemingly inconsequential films an unaccountable power. Sungjoon and friends are mostly beer drinkers, but the cumulative effect of The Day He Arrives is closer to a night with Soju: You empty the bottle and think it has affected you not at all . . . right until it’s time to stand up and head home.

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Oki’s Movie

The members of a shivering love triangle configure and reconfigure across a frozen Korean campus-scape in Oki’s Movie, four interlocking shorts from director Hong Sang-soo. Each one bears a slight shift in perspective, beginning with Jingu (Lee Sun-kyun), a thirtysomething filmmaker and professor trapped in the banality of maintaining the status quo with everyone from his mirthless wife and petty colleagues to his barber. Alcohol encourages Jingu’s professional landslide, which ends in a drunken faculty dinner and humiliation at his own post-screening Q&A. From there, we jump back to Jingu’s twenties, when he was a student at the same school under Song (Moon Sung-keun), a successful director who happens to be having an affair with Oki (Jung Yumi), the object of Jingu’s Werther-ian affections. If the characterizations are fleeting, the recessive mood is not: Hong’s signature observational style is at once offhanded and astute, romantic and lightly chilled. “Pomp and Circumstance” recurs as a melancholy theme, as does the idea that academia and creativity don’t mix as well as the adjuncts of the world would like. The short of the title finally turns the film toward the inscrutable Oki and the sentimental education she receives in the difference between innocence and experience.

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Sea Change

Master of the beautifully modulated and devastatingly melancholy romantic farce, Korean director Hong Sang-soo has been a New York Film Festival fixture for most of the 21st century. Back in the day, he’d have been a familiar art-house presence as well, but Woman on the Beach is only his second movie to receive a theatrical run.

Hong is nothing if not an auteur. There’s a sense that the 47-year-old, American-educated filmmaker has been repeating himself since his first Korean hit, the wistful, dryly comic Turning Gate (2002). But then compulsive repetition is one of his major themes. In Turning Gate, a romantically maladroit out-of-work actor embarked on successive failed relationships with two self-possessed women; its follow-up, Woman Is the Future of Man (2005), somewhat inverted the triangle to have a pair of thirtysomething urban intellectuals searching for the woman each loved and lost; the self-reflexive Tale of Cinema (2006) offered a case study in male idiocy, focusing on a former film student who believes that his hapless love life has been appropriated as material by a more successful classmate.

Steeped in similar jealousies, Woman on the Beach presents a pair of overlapping erotic triangles. Famous filmmaker Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo), a bit younger than Hong, is having difficulty finishing his latest script; he prevails on his production designer, Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo), to accompany him to the off-season seashore. Chang-wook insists on bringing along a date, the aspiring composer Kim Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung). Initially diffident, she turns out to be an independent type who cracks up the director by breezily dismissing his hapless assistant: “By the way, he’s not my boyfriend.”

Hong is the most Frenchified of contemporary Korean directors. His tone is droll, his mode is detached, and the essential division in his world—as Manohla Dargis noted a few years ago in the Times—is not between North and South Korea but rather between men and women. Hong’s movies are predicated on awkward bullshit, symptomatic behavior, and careful camera placement. (Although his style is utterly his own, he has affinities not only with Eric Rohmer but Albert Brooks in his deadpan presentation of absurd antics.) Any of his films could be subtitled “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.”

Joong-rae’s incomprehensible script (something to do with a guy staying at a hotel who keeps hearing the same music wherever he goes) is soon overshadowed by the accident-prone director’s knack for precipitating real-life crises. He makes a scene at a local sushi joint as well as an inebriated pass at Moon-sook that includes a lengthy interview regarding the particulars of her love life during the five years she studied music in Germany. Then, because he can’t control himself, he launches into an extended tirade about Asian women and foreign men. “You’re different than your films,” Moon-sook observes. “You’re just another Korean man.” She sleeps with him anyway, and he flees back to Seoul the next day.

A structured series of understated, actor-driven riffs, Woman on the Beach is seamlessly episodic. As minor characters, including a dog, wander in and out of the action, the wintry beach comes to seem an existential landscape. This is particularly apparent in the movie’s second movement, when Joong-rae returns to the seashore a few days later and finds himself pursuing another young woman, Choi Sun-hee (Song Sun-mi), whom he believes resembles Moon-sook. It’s research: Joong-rae’s script has mutated into the story of his one-night affair. But that soon comes unhinged when, dislodging herself from a place in his imagination, Moon-sook returns to the beach, with predictably disruptive results.

Albeit not as textured as Hong’s past few films, Woman on the Beach is no less engrossing—a rueful tale of karmic irony, self-deceived desire, squandered second chances, and unforeseen abandonment. Is it also something of a confession? Hong’s alter ego can only create out of abject desperation and emotional chaos. At one point, the irate Joong-rae draws Moon-sook a diagram to illustrate his convoluted mental processes. The joke is that it’s the most baffling image in this immaculately constructed movie.