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Hong Sang-soo's 'Tale of Cinema'

2007/06/07 Source

2005 South Korean film receives a late premiere in Berlin

Jan Creutzenberg (RhusHeesen)

The opening image shows Seoul's impressive TV-Tower, up on a hill, in a cloud of mist. Suddenly the camera zooms out, down to the streets, right into the middle of action. Actually, there is not much going on. A policeman on duty, people passing by, someone leaves a music-store with a guitar, talking to his younger brother.

This is Sang-won, the protagonist of the story, that slowly unfolds. A drifter in the streets of Seoul, he runs by chance into Yong-sil, his old high-school-love, back then not meant to be. They share dinner and some drinks, try to sleep with each other and finally decide to commit a double-suicide. Although they both swallow a mouthful of sleeping-pills, Yong-sil wakes up again, calls for help and leaves. Sang-won's desperate cry from a rooftop concludes the first half of "Tale of Cinema" (South Korea, 2005).

Yesterday night Hong Sang-soo's penultimate film had a late premiere in Berlin at the cinema Babylon. This special screening (unfortunately only from DVD) was made possible by "debut", a cinephile initiative that regularly shows films never distributed in Germany. According to Lukas Foerster (member of the debut-program team) the aim is to promote internationally acclaimed films and filmmakers lacking a lobby in Germany.

While other Korean directors like Kim Ki-duk or Park Chan-wook enjoy a certain notoriety on German movie screens, Hong Sang-soo is virtually unknown here -- despite a screening of his last film "Woman on the Beach" at this year's Berlinale. One reason for this may be his specific way of story-telling.

Rather than dwelling in exotic imagery or excesses of violence, Hong shows casual situations, filmed in a seemingly natural way. But -- as Ekkehard Knorer (independent film critic) notes during the discussion that followed the presentation -- at the same time "Tale of Cinema" is, like all of Hong's movies, a highly constructed "composition of repetitions and variations".

In an interview with the French movie magazine Vertigo the director recalls the situation that served as a nucleus for his film: "After watching a movie, I often walk a few steps in front of the cinema, smoke a cigarette, wait a bit". That's exactly what Tongsu, middle-aged movie-director and tragicomic hero of the film's second half, does. In fact everything described above turns out to be a film-within-a-film.

Tongsu strolls around, eventually meets the actress that played Yong-sil (she has the same name in "reality"), follows her around the street and forces her into situations that replay several scenes from the movie. The borders between fiction and reality bend constantly. This effect is supported by Hong's repeated use of irritating zooms that banish people into the off, travel from details to full shots and generally reframe situations in a matter of seconds -- in both halves of the film.

It is this "threshold to the cinema", as Sulgie Lie (assistant at the department of film studies at the Freie Universitat Berlin) calls it, that grants "Tale of Cinema" a special rank among Hong Sang-soo's other works. Actually the original title -- "Geuk Jang Jeon" -- plays with this ambiguity: It can be translated "in front of the movie theater" as well.

Still, Tongsu is one of Hong's typical heroes: "male loser" or "intellectual slacker", trapped in self-delusion, booze and cigarettes. He might be saved by a woman -- but this never happens. Even his final, life-embracing lines appear cynical. As Knorer puts it: "In Hong's universe it is impossible for men to grow up".

When the discussion is over, main entrances are already closed at the Babylon. The audience can leave only through the backdoor. So this time there are no circling steps in front of the cinema, no cigarettes after the movie.

After the film: The cinema Babylon in Berlin-Mitte.
2007 Jan Creutzenberg

Hong Sang-soo's "Tale of Cinema" will be shown again this Friday night at 10 p.m. at the Babylon Berlin (Rosa Luxemburg-Platz).

Check out Open the link for information about the upcoming program (partly English, partly German). The next film in the "debut"-cycle is "Flandres" by French director Bruno Dumont.

More information on "Tale of Cinema", as well as film stills, are provided by the Korean Movie and Drama Database (in English): Open the link.

The fansite Open the link offers several essays and criticisms on Hong's films (in English).

The interview cited was published in Vertigo No. 28 (summer 2006).

2007 OhmyNews

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