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Film director Hong Sang-soo: Depicting unreal reality

2005/06/01 Source

At the 58th Cannes festival this year, a total of eight Korean movies competed with their foreign rivals. The Korean films included Hong Sang-soo's "Tale of Cinema", Kim Jee-woon's "A Bittersweet Life", Ryoo Seung-wan's "Crying Fist", Im Sang-soo's "The President's Last Bang", Kim Ki-duk's "The Bow", Shim Min-young's "A Little Bit More", and Jang Ryul's "Villain". "Crying Fist" took the FIPRESCI Award, while "Villain" won the ACID award, once again demonstrating the strong potential of Korean movies.

Although his work did not receive an award at this year's festival, Hong Sang-soo became the first Korean film director to be invited to the Cannes festival two years in a row. What is the charm of Hong's movies, which have drawn so much attention in Cannes?

Korean film director loved by Cannes

Cannes showed an interest in Hong again this year by inviting his movie "Tale of Cinema" quite unexpectedly one week prior to the festival's opening. So far, four of Hong's six movies have been invited to Cannes: "The Power of Kangwon Province" (1998) and "Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors" (2000) in the Un Certain Regard section, "Woman Is The Future Of Man" (2004) in the main competition, and "Tale of Cinema" this year.

This year, the Cannes film festival was a "gala of film masters" with many of the world's best filmmakers invited to present their works, including the Dardenne Brothers, Jim Jarmusch, David Cronenberg, Wim Wenders, Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao Hsien and Lars von Trier.

"Tale of Cinema" is a play-within-a-play about an up-and-coming film director who one day exits a movie theater and encounters the lead actress of the movie he has just seen, with the two eventually spending the night together. French critics gave the film three to four stars out of a total four stars, praising it as "a movie that overturns the desire to ask questions about itself" and "a movie that once again underscored the subtlety of Hong Sang-soo's works". Although Hong's movie failed to win any awards, he competed on par with the world's top film masters.

The day France fell for Hong Sang-soo

Conte de Cinema" was also invited to the New York Film Festival, which last year invited his other work, "Woman Is The Future Of Man". The festival's jury commended "Tale of Cinema" as Hong's best work ever. In October of last year, Hong held a retrospective of his works at the Next Wave Festival in BAM Cinematheque, New York, where his works were referred to not as "films" or "movies", but as "oeuvres" (the French for "artworks"), attesting to the high recognition of his films worldwide.

But it was France that gave absolute support and respect to Hong. In 2003, all of Hong's movies were sold in the DVD format in France, and three of his previous movies ? "The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well'", "The Power Of Kangwon Province" and "Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors" ? opened in Paris concurrently, a quite unprecedented occurrence. Moreover, the media introduced Hong as a top-notch filmmaker.

What is the reason Hong's movies are so loved and highly regarded in France, the cradle of filmmaking? Charles Tesson, editor of Cahiers du Cinema, which picked Hong as one of the most important film directors of our times, described Hong as "unique". He said unlike other Asian film directors, who place the priority on image and style, Hong strives to expose the ambiguousness of human nature by observing human behavior "like an entomologist". Although movies are always about people, Tesson says Hong's works stand out by "delving into the very bones of human nature".

The top-rated French production and distribution company MK2 agreed to invest in and distribute Hong's movie "Woman Is The Future Of Man" after just looking at its synopsis, and participated in the co-production of "Conte de Cinema" as well.
Hong Sang-soo-branded movies

Hong is often called an auteristic film director. Auteristic directors are those who stamp their own personal style onto their films and thus set new trends. Because film directors carry out crucial creative tasks when creating a movie, like novel writers, a movie is called "auteristic" only when it fully concurs with the director's intention. In that sense, Hong is no doubt an auteristic director. Audiences can easily distinguish his works from other works because they recognize Hong's distinctive style. That being said, just exactly what are Hong Sang-soo-branded movies like?

From his debut work, "The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well", to his latest movie "Conte de Cinema", Hong has satirized the ambiguousness of human nature by using relationships and love. In his movies, Hong magnifies the everyday lives of men and women as if with a microscope, showing viewers what they fail to see in their own lives ? things which are simultaneously familiar yet hard to notice.

Hong's movies, which portray the familiarities of everyday life, are full of surprises that catch viewers off guard. Conversations held among his characters, each living their own lives, always go beyond audiences' expectations. Hong's characters are undaunted when they should be cautious, and unabashed when they should be embarrassed. Every word they say can potentially arouse outbursts of laughter.

Hong's movies don't suggest a motif or follow an established pattern like other movies do. They just seem to present viewers with familiar scenes from everyday life without any dramatic events whatsoever. Improvisation is a peculiarity of Hong's works, but to some audiences it may seem insincere or even disrespectful toward viewers.

Why this apparent disrespect toward his viewers? His answer will probably help us understand his style better. "I wanted to break away from the conventional drama structure. Hollywood has exploited the established prologue-development-turn-conclusion structure for decades. It is the mass media that sets the tone for the way people think. I try to refrain from using this fabricated way of thinking. I don't try to convince audiences about anything. I just want them to interpret my works however they want".
Depicting today's feelings today
Hong, who strives to present his audiences with opportunities to think openly, envisions his movies with an open-minded perspective, which is evident in his production style. He is known for writing lines for a certain scenes impromptu, right on the spot, without relying on pre-written scripts, to reflect the atmosphere of the filming site and the actors on the morning of the shooting day.

Oftentimes, Hong borrows ideas for his movies from the words and behaviors of people around him. He began producing the movie "On The Occasion Of Remembering the Turning Gate" without a script, utilizing only a brief storyline and a 30-page outline. Two pages of the script written by Hong one morning in less than an hour were all the actors and production staff received on the first day of shooting. Jean Luc Godard and Wong Kar Wai also prefer this method as it allows them to depict reality in its entirety.

Hong asks his actors to act realistically. That is why he makes actors drink real alcohol when shooting drinking scenes and requires his actors to spend the night on the filming set before scenes that show them waking up in the morning. Hong believes that the quality of acting differs according to what situation the actor has been in prior to shooting a scene. To ensure the most realistic scenes possible, Hong adopts the one-scene-one-cut policy and prefers long scenes lasting over six minutes each. He keeps shooting them ? sometimes up to 20 times ? until he is fully satisfied.

As one who is quick to portray his current feelings, Hong creates movies that always feel fresh by breaking from the norm and avoiding cliches.
Closing remarks
We looked forward to Hong's movie winning a prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and unfortunately our expectations went unmet. But unlike a 100-meter race, there are no absolute criteria for evaluating movies. There is no need to pay too much attention to awards. What's more important for our movie industry is to lay a solid foundation for producing culturally diverse movies ranging from art movies to blockbusters.

Film director Hong Sang-soo, who quit a college lecturing job to completely engross himself in creating his next movie, plans to begin shooting his new film in May, refusing to wait until next year. And as he talks about his ambitions, we come to realize that the future of the Korean ? and possibly the global ? movie industry is in his hands.

Born in 1961 in Seoul
Enrolled in the Dept. of Film Studies at Chung Ang University, 1980
Went to pursue studies in the U.S., 1983
Graduated from California College of Art and Crafts, 1985
M.A., the School of Art Institute of Chicago, 1987
Professor of Film Studies at the Korean National University of Arts, 1998

Major works
"The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well" (1996)
"The Power of Kangwon Province" (1998)
"Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors" (2000)
"On The Occasion Of Remembering The Turning Gate" (2002)
"Woman Is The Future Of Man" (2004)
"Tale of Cinema" (20005)

1. "The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well"
16th Film Critics' Awards, Best New Director Award
17th Blue Dragon Film Festival, Best New Director Award
15th Vancouver International Film Festival, Dragon and Tiger Award for Young Cinema
21st Golden Film Awards, Best Lead Actor & Actress, Best New Director, 1997
27th International Film Festival Rotterdam, VPRO Tiger Award
42nd Asia-Pacific Film Festival, Best New Director

2. "The Power of Kangwon Province"
51st Cannes International Film Festival, Un Certain Regard Special Mention
19th Blue Dragon Awards, Best Director and Best Screenplay
3rd Pusan International Film Festival, NETPAC Award / Selected Young Artist of Today by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (film category)
36th Daejong Film Festival, Best New Cinematographer
14th Santa Barbara Film Festival, Burning Vision Award

3. "Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors"
53rd Cannes International Film Festival, Un Certain Regard
1st Jeonju International Film Festival, Opening Film

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