Finite Worlds

At the New York Film Festival this autumn, two new films by South Korean director Hong Sangsoo played as part of the main slate. The Novelist’s Film and Walk Up represent Hong’s twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth features since his 1996 debut, The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, meaning that on average he produces more than one film every year. In the last decade, he has made two per year several times, and in 2017 he made three: On the Beach at Night Alone, Claire’s Camera and The Day After. A regular of the festival circuit – the former film premiered at Berlin, the latter two at Cannes – Hong is much loved by its presiding critics, chief among them artistic director of the New York festival, Dennis Lim. This year, in addition to his festival programming, Lim curated a retrospective of the director’s work, screened in randomly paired double features, accompanied by ‘The Hong Show’ – a quiz night where Lim answered audience questions on ‘the ne plus ultra of the modern auteur’. The Hong Show doubled as a celebration of Lim’s elegant new monograph, Tale of Cinema, which grapples with what he describes as ‘the difficulty of seeing Hong clearly, of orienting oneself within a shape-shifting hall of mirrors’. Published by Fireflies Press, Tale of Cinema is the latest of the Decadent Editions, a series set to comprise ten books on ten films made in the 2000s, with works by Nick Pinkerton, Erika Balsom and Melissa Anderson already in circulation.

Lim focuses his attention on Hong’s sixth film, from which his book takes its title. Tale of Cinema (2006), he argues, can serve as an ‘inflection point of sorts’: it was the director’s first self-produced film, his first to employ devices – zoom and voiceover – which became signatures, and the first to foreground the practice of filmmaking. Yet, Lim concedes, there is no keystone: ‘It is a critical truism – and only partially true – that Hong makes the same movie over and over’. That partial truth is found in certain constants. Hong’s films generally take the form of a chamber play, with a cast of recurring characters and players; they are set in the decades after South Korea’s transition to democracy; they play out amidst a consistently middle-class milieu. Their signature frame is of a man and a woman sitting at a table littered with empty bottles of alcohol. The two are likely artists, the man a film director, the woman his muse. He will be lascivious, she – at least in early films – will lack a certain interiority. Conversation will be awkward, sometimes agonizingly so, and this will be exacerbated by Hong’s proclivity for plain framing and long takes. There will be little action and lots of talking, but despite this, the characters will never overcome some fundamental inability to communicate.

Less predictable is Hong’s use of narrative. Walk Up, for example, tells four stories, each corresponding to a different floor of the building where the film is set. Tale of Cinema tells the same story twice, first as a film within a film, then as ‘reality’. ‘Even when they are largely confined to a single plane of reality’, Lim writes, ‘we are compelled to notice the shape of a Hong film, thanks to repeated actions, doubled characters, recurring locations or mirrored situations’. A film might fold back on itself, rhyming like a couplet; at other times, a film may more closely resemble a series of disparate poems, held together by a common metre. This narratological approach is made more intricate still by the fact that Hong’s films all exist in conversation. The oeuvre is recursive, reflexive. In Lim’s view, their ‘meaning and pleasures are cumulative’, and so a ‘single movie gives little sense of his project’. Indeed there is ‘something perverse’, he confesses, about isolating any one film – as the book series demands – given that ‘the parts and the whole are inseparable’. Lim’s solution is a self-consciously ‘Hongian’ one, to take one path ‘through’ the film and another ‘around’ it.

In a 2015 interview with Cinema Scope, Hong doodled a few shapes to explain his working method: two circles side by side, connected by dotted lines (the Locarno festival subsequently made it into a t-shirt design). Beneath them he wrote: ‘infinite worlds possible.’ The two circles, Hong clarified, represent two independent worlds. They exist in parallel. But ‘as soon as there is a clear correspondence between them, these worlds disappear on their own’. This is to say that Hong’s films do not, or cannot, exist in isolation. To see one film without the others is typically to wonder what all the fuss is about. (For me, Claire’s Camera at Lincoln Center. When the screening ended, an elderly gentleman turned to his partner and said, ‘That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.’ I felt the same way.) The pleasures of watching a Hong film stem from familiarity, not just with the works that came before, but crucially also with the director himself. Corpus fits: Hong himself is the ur-shape. His films are self-expression by way of self-obsession. Across them we see the story of a life: an attempted suicide as a wayward teenager (Tale of Cinema); a trip to America to study filmmaking (Woman is the Future of Man); an affair with actress-muse Kim Min-hee (the 2017 films); many affairs with drinking (most films); teaching filmmaking (Oki’s Movie); enduring audience Q&As (Right Now, Wrong Then); discussing – and justifying – his art (The Novelist’s Film); and more recently, a preoccupation with mortality (Hotel by the River, In Front of Your Face, Walk Up).

A key detail is missing here: Hong’s encounter with Cézanne. While studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late eighties, where several of Cézanne’s paintings were on display, he experienced a moment of clarity. ‘I saw this apple painting for the first time . . . I was standing there talking to myself, like, “This is enough. I don’t need anything more.”’ Hong has spoken of his love for Cézanne many times, calling his work ‘perfect’, ‘flawless’. During the retrospective at Lincoln Center, he reflected that ‘maybe his way of proportionalizing the abstract and the concrete is just right for me.’ Lim considers the particular balance between these two poles to be shared by the two artists. Other commonalities include ‘the obsessive repetition – those endlessly re-arranged apples – and the proto-Cubist interest in bending the laws of perspective’. I would also add ‘mundanity’, in that Hong’s films are as mundane as a bowl of apples. By this I do mean dull – tedious, monotonous – but also earthly, terrestrial. The root word here, mundus, means simply ‘world’, referring to either mankind or the earth itself. (Another sphere.) Hong’s worlds, like Cézanne’s apples, are microcosmic in this way: gravitons for greater thought.

Cézanne painted hundreds of still lifes featuring the fruit, but his dedication was not to apples so much as painting them, problematizing them. ‘I want to astonish Paris with an apple’, he said. Their simplicity has been cause for much hyperbole. In the apples, we see everything – everything but an apple: ‘this is no longer fruit, nor is it fruit modelled in paint,’ wrote Ernst Bloch, ‘instead all imaginable life is in them, and if they were to fall, a universal conflagration would ensue, to such an extent are these still lifes already heroic landscapes, so loaded are these paintings with mystical gravity and a yet unknown, nameless mythology’. Critics are sometimes guilty of describing Hong’s simple films in similarly hyperbolic terms, but Hong is a director equally dedicated to the problematics of his medium – his signature zoom has the same jarring effect as Cézanne’s oblique brushstrokes. Both foreground the artwork’s materiality, call attention to its making. Lacan describes this as ‘the vanity of the work of art, of the work of the brush’ – that which betrays its ‘imitation.’ But Cézanne is different. When Cézanne paints his apples, Lacan argues, ‘it is clear that in painting those apples, he is doing something very different from imitating apples – even though his final manner of imitating them, which is the most striking, is primarily oriented toward a technique of presenting the object. But the more the object is presented in the imitation, the more it opens up the dimension in which illusion is destroyed and aims at something else’.

What else, if neither reality nor imitation, concrete nor abstract? In the same Cinema Scope interview, Hong drew another diagram to convey the relationship between fiction and reality in his work: a rectangle, labelled ‘Real’, with an arrow curving toward it. The arrow comes close but never touches, swerving away like a near-miss comet. ‘Imagine this rectangle is real life. I try to come as close as possible to it. How? Using details from my life.’ Lim compares the approach to autofiction, the literary genre wherein auto holds far more allure than fiction. Yet in the case of Hong’s films, the consequences of this approach are more severe, with the author’s omnipresence decentralizing the texts themselves. The films are ultimately less important than their maker, and ironically, Hong’s overfamiliarity serves as a kind of defamiliarization.

For example: The Novelist’s Film concerns a novelist (Lee Hye-young) who encounters several old friends, one of them a filmmaker (Kwon Hae-hyo, who also plays a filmmaker in Walk Up). In doing so, she makes a new friend, the actress Gil-soo (Kim Min-hee) and is inspired to make a film. Yet when I watch The Novelist’s Film, I do not care for the characters except that they represent fragments of Hong; I do not listen to their dialogue except to discern his treatises on film, art, life. When Gil-soo enters the frame, I do not see a newly retired actress, I see Kim Min-hee, Hong’s lover, who inspires him in that same way and who has similarly retreated from acting. When the film ends, my viewing method is rewarded: with a film within a film, purportedly the novelist’s film, which is of course not hers but Hong’s. In this epilogue we see Kim Min-hee, with Hong’s voice behind the camera. Soft music plays while she gathers a bouquet of flowers, bride-like. Though Hong and Kim’s relationship has been public for some time, South Korea’s divorce laws mean that the two have never married, and so with this sequence, Hong realizes his forbidden nuptials.

When Lacan refers to the ‘vanity’ of art, what exactly does he mean? We can think of vanity in terms of an object – a vanity – a kind of mirror-stage that shares the same basic structure as the cinema: seat, screen. These films are vanities in the sense of Hong confronting his reflection. But further, the word vanity is rooted in the void: it describes an emptiness, a fruitlessness. Vanitas therefore defines a form of still life concerning death, like a memento mori, as when Cézanne’s apples turned to skulls. Walk Up is a work of vanity in this way. Scaling the building, floor by floor, story by story, we see a director age and become unwell. He curls up in bed, foetal, and we think perhaps he might die. On the building’s highest plane, he recalls an encounter with God, and in the context of Hong’s reflexive filmmaking, we imagine this confrontation as something like Jesus on the cross: monologue made dialogue, a conversation with the self.

Perhaps no director today embodies the nature of ‘creator’ as dictator-patriarch more than Hong. Thierry Frémaux, director of the Cannes Film Festival, has labelled the director the ‘Korean Woody Allen’ – a comparison Lim rejects (it presumably ‘highlights the neurotic male leads and the quasi-autobiographical elements’, but like similar comparisons ‘fails to hold for anyone looking closely enough’). Yet though there are surface similarities – neurosis, lust, self-abuse – Hong’s worlds are yet more insular and more intricate. He is also in greater control. For The Novelist’s Film, Hong acted as director, writer (Hong, since 2010, is said to write each scene upon the day of filming), producer, editor, cinematographer, and composer, while his would-be wife Kim served as production manager. The film was funded by the proceeds of its predecessor; Hong’s self-sustaining economic model allows each new project a budget in the region of $100,000.

Lim argues that this ‘fundamental modesty and pragmatism’ is something ‘radical’. ‘We never think of Hong as a political filmmaker’ – as he notes, other critics have made the argument that Hong’s films are emblematic of a ‘post-political’ Korea – ‘but what is his entire project if not an act of resistance, a rejection of the norms that dictate what movies should be and how they get made.’ I am wary of these words – radical and resistance – especially when applied to art. Dennis Zhou, writing in The Nation, makes the dubious claim that the films are not apolitical themselves, but rather construct ‘an aesthetics of the apolitical which is anything but’. Hong should be celebrated for his artistic autarky, but there is nothing politically radical in his films, and they resist only intrusions on his creative control. Later in the book, Lim suggests that the ‘democracy of incident in Hong’s films, the absence of hierarchy and the evenness of attention, invites an equivalent way of looking and listening,’ but this is only true if we remove Hong from the equation. It is an observation more appropriate to Cézanne: ‘Cézanne painted the heads of his friends and family as if they were apples’, writes Meyer Schapiro. Hong paints them as if they are Hong.

Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas: there is nothing inherently wrong with such an approach. In almost all fiction, auto or otherwise, one life stands in for many, and it is sometimes easiest to speak generally through specifics. But in Hong’s case, his cinema has developed a chronic overreliance on its animating body – and so have its admirers. One question that recurs while reading Tale of Cinema: what are these films without Hong? Lim undoubtedly succeeds in the endeavour of ‘seeing Hong clearly’, but the films themselves remain elusive. In attempting to make sense of them – perhaps to ascertain their value beyond Hong himself – Lim often defers to cinema’s most prominent theorists: Roland Barthes on spectatorship, Andrew Sarris on auteur theory, David Bordwell, André Bazin, Robert Bresson. A consequence of minimalist art is that we project meaning onto it, filling gaps and imposing symbols. In the case of Hong’s work, there is perhaps nothing more to be said about the man and woman getting drunk (again and again), and so we look elsewhere, toward their author, where we can anchor our thoughts and feelings, sow theories, and participate in the cult of personality which has driven Hong to the upper echelon of festival filmmaking. Beyond the filmmaker, however, we have his films: can they be said to contain ‘all imaginable life’, as Bloch said of Cézanne? Are they ‘heroic landscapes’ replete with ‘mystical gravity’ and ‘mythology’? Or are they just apples?

Read on: Kevin Gray, ‘Political Cultures of South Korea’, NLR 79.