Sang-won (played by Lee Ki-woo) is a young college student who finds himself making an unexpected reconnection. Well, not really. Sang-won is a hopeless romantic, and unsurprisingly assumes that any kind of mild emotional sentiment at all must be the symptom of some greater, universal truth. Yes, that's right- this is once again an archetypal lead character from a Hong Sang-soo film.
The immediate distinction from the rest of his filmography this time is how young the lead characters are. Watching Sang-won's story, I constantly got the impression that this was a tale which some decades down the line would turn into a witty anecdote about the passionate love affairs of youth. Watching the story unfold directly, though, this sentiment is pretty much impossible to entertain seriously. Far from being self-motivated and pursuant, Sang-won resorts to desperation mostly because he's, well, desperate.
If there's any moral to Sang-won's story it's to not act like Sang-won. And, to a lesser extent, Yong-sil (played by Uhm Ji-won). It takes remarkably little to persuade Yong-sil into an abortive tryst. I imagine this is why she's perfectly fine with the utterly ridiculous idea that closes the first half of "Tale of Cinema". While some day this might turn into an affective story about how times goes by, in the immediate sense Sang-won is punished for his impertinence and the anti-romantic message is clearly set.
Then, in a plot twist...well, I'd rather not ruin it specifically, but suffice to say the second half ends up replaying a lot of the events from the first portion, giving the very clear message that none of the characters involved learned anything from Sang-won's story. One would expect that people with a decent education and plenty of years of maturity might be capable of some introspection. Nope. It's just the same events, replayed.
Easy as it is to focus on the men in this film I was actually most interested in Yong-sil. At one point she expresses disbelief at her paramour's declaration of love- the construction bears close similarity to a scene in "Our Sunhi". But the context clearly illustrates the fact that Yong-sil really should know better. Even in the immediate sense she seems indifferent and disbelieving- yet ends up going to bed with the man anyway.
This sense of persistence pervades "Tale of Cinema". It's a story of men who succeed because they try really hard, and the women who relent because they don't know or care about these grand romantic narratives. They just...might as well because you only live once right? That's really not a very good argument, and "Tale of Cinema" excels in pointing this out.
Consider if you had the opportunity to live through the moments in this film. It would be a lot more weird and creepy than fun. Even if you ignore Sang-won, consider Yong-sil. She's clearly operating from a position of relative power, apparently challenging cultural norms with a libertine sexuality. And yet the woman has no fun at all, looking annoyed and resigned at the end of her various misadventures. Consequently, it's unsurprising that the movie's final textual message bears little similarity to the proceedings that came before it- but that's OK. It's not like we were paying attention anyway.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Tale of Cinema""
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