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Still Life With Hong Sangsoo

With this opportunity to watch the last seven films of Hong Sangsoo, the Harvard Film Archive offers us the possibility of three distinct experiences. 

The first is that of discovering the films for the first time: the impression of a new sensation, the emotion of a door that opens and invites you in. I like to think of Hong’s ouevre as a home and each film a different room in which we are welcomed to spend time watching and listening to a story unfold with the playful uncertainty we experience when we enter an unfamiliar home. 

The second experience is that of revisiting one or many of the films and coming back to rooms that might look different this time around; previously hidden nooks and drawers now expanding our first encounters. As we watch again, the old becomes new and the anxious search for novelty is put into question. 

And lastly, the third experience is that of combining films. Because Hong’s recent films were made within such a short period of time, deconstructing the chronology of production provides unexpected resonance, and new shafts of light stream across the different rooms. In creating your own double or triple feature, you can see these works less as a linear path or evolution than a much more complex and ever-changing network. The combinations incite new interactions that may change how we perceive each film, breaking their autonomy, rejecting the hierarchical idea of the masterpiece and introducing the idea that this artist’s work is a lifelong and ever-mutating project. 

These three experiences resonate with certain concepts attributed to three modernist painters. The experience of watching for the first time relates to Paul Cézanne and his idea of painting as a realization or sensation of the uncertainty of personal experience. The second experience, of rewatching, relates to Giorgio Morandi and his joyful re-encounter of ordinary motifs through repetition and variation. And lastly, the idea of combination relates to Josef Albers’ experimentation with color and his awareness of the inherent mutability of our perception and the infinite possibilities of interaction.

But, before going into the museum, let me share with you an unusual cinephile echo. By watching, rewatching and recombining Hong´s films, I could suddenly hear the pulse of a filmmaker he is usually not associated with: Orson Welles. In a conversation between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, there is a moment when the younger cinephile asks the master why he used an 18.5mm lens in Citizen Kane. Welles answers: “Because no one else was using it.” Director Hong might respond similarly about his singular working method, for he seems to want to try the option that most people would neglect or leave out. In choosing what others do not, he finds something that is out of his control, something unformed, new, not a determined style, something whose meaning is yet unclear.

The most prominent example of this attitude is his use of the zoom to create a purely optical movement. In order not to interrupt the flow of the acting and to accompany the development of the action, he instead chooses to either zoom in or zoom out, a decision that everyone else would have rejected for being too intrusive, too artificial. Finally, after at least ten films, it has been accepted, naturalized, even celebrated as a sign of authorship, of style. Yet now, in his last two films, he is not zooming anymore.

Another of Hong’s provocations is his choice of locations. He chooses places that might pass as too ordinary, flat, narrow, nondescript or even ugly. But, then, what is beauty? Hong seems to avoid space-prejudice in favor of proximity and the curious warmth of the crooked quotidian. This resistance against the standardization of image and sound in cinema is even empowered by his choice of shooting with the cameras he has available—usually low-resolution—and recording his score with… maybe his phone? Most filmmakers would avoid all of these conditions since they might prevent them from making films or showing them internationally. But Hong’s decision to choose counter to the tradition, selecting even that option different from what contemporary auteur cinema would take, seems to be making his project possible. Hong moves forward by going against, avoiding looking back in a seemingly calm but steady step. And so, he experiments: he blurs his images, saturates the colors, exposes the pixels in his black-and-white cinematography, edits against cause-effect relationships, leaves things unsaid and makes dreams and reality, life and cinema undistinguishable. 

In a world of elevator pitches, feedback sessions, high-definition images, Dolby surround sound, high concepts, algorithmic scripts, mood boards, millions of dollars, cynicism and cleverness Hong Sangsoo turns away by going smaller and practicing what Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet call “the luxury of austerity.” On a very small budget, he works with only a tiny crew and takes on overlapping roles (he is now doing the writing, directing, editing, cinematography and music of his films). He shoots on a tight schedule of only a dozen days and writes his scripts the morning of the shoot, resourcefully using biographical elements almost to the point of absurdity, with elusive and ambiguous storylines that are not that easy to follow but playfully subvert traditional narrative and any sort of suspense or surprise tricks.

In his recent and enlightening book about Hong Sangsoo’s Tale of Cinema, New York Film Festival Director Dennis Lim narrates the interaction of the filmmaker with one of Cézanne´s paintings of apples Hong experienced as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. Hong recounts that after standing in front of that painting for a while he understood that there was no need for more; that was enough. Last month, I had the opportunity to see this same painting in a Cézanne exhibit in London. Standing before it, I tried to figure out what Hong saw, what realization or sensation made him feel that that something was enough. I was distracted by the thick layer of yellow paint that dominated the left side of the painting and by how unevenly applied it was. It was more abstract than the usual apple still lifes that were in the other rooms. I thought about how much closer the set of a Hong film is to an artist’s studio than to a regular film set. I also thought about how we could abstract space and time in cinema. I thought about the repetition of motifs—the apples, the soju bottles, the tables—the act of painting and shooting once and again the same set of elements, the closeness to those fruits and cloths, the familiarity with those narrow streets and people.

And so I recalled another conversation I had, this time with director Jaime Puertas Castillo: while discussing what could be his next film, he surprised me by revealing the importance of proximity, and a desire to make films in proximity, from what we have around us, close to us, given to us. An unpredictable strength lies there that might be enough, enough to make a film, enough to make sense. How much is enough for making sense? What questions does a film need to ask? Does a film need to resolve them or keep them without closure? How can we restore to images and sounds some of the rich ambiguity this powerful proximity holds within? A sense of mystery, something unsaid, is necessary to keep the films open, to invite us and move forward. Director Hong´s films have the (extra)ordinary ability to hold these mysteries effortlessly. We remain on the verge of making sense. We doubt. We might not fully see. Things remain in that moment just before they become evident. But they are there, as things are. And that might be enough. The film ends, and we go out the door.

Here I share some of the questions or mysteries that emerged for me during the watching of these seven films:

1. Which film is actress Kim Min-hee writing at the coffee shop in Grass? Why does actress Gong Min-jung go up and down the stairs? And what does actor Ahn Jae-hong see when he contemplates the grass that gives title to the film?

2. Why does reality become so painterly in Hotel by the River? How soothing is crying? Why does Hong wait for the cat to leave the frame before cutting to the next scene?

3. Is there a woman escaping in The Woman Who Ran? Why does Kim Min-hee come back to the cinema? Is going to the theater to watch a movie effectively a short-term rental that provides those without a home with a temporary roof? (Thank you, filmmaker Gina Telaroli for that note!)

4. Why can’t actor Shin Seok-ho hug leading lady Park Mi-so in the scene they are shooting in Introduction? How many films are there in this film? How cold is that sea? Is he in love with his friend?

5. Whose film is the film shot by the novelist in The Novelist’s Film? Why are some of Hong’s films in black and white? How can Hong wrap up a film that continuously meanders and detours in such a beautifully classical way?

6. In In Front of Your Face a woman is dying. Why is she laughing? Does Lee Hye-yeong want to accept the invitation to star in a film?

7. How many fears is the director in the film—actor Kwon Hae-hyo—coping with in Walk Up? Is that building a place of comfort or a trap? What´s happening with that car?

These questions have produced in me a sense of closeness to these films. I feel invited to inhabit them. They keep me warm while embracing uncertainty. I relate to them. I feel at home.

So, if I were in Cambridge during this series, I would go watch these films again. As is true for the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu (soon to be seen in a complete HFA retrospective this summer), I think it is important to watch more than one film. Because Hong’s project goes beyond any single film. It is a home with many rooms inviting you to spend time within them.

And after the screenings, I would visit the museum that stands just next to the beautiful Carpenter Center where the screenings are taking place and look for Cézanne´s painting that hangs there: Still Life with Commode. I would stand there looking at those apples for a while, and then I would go home. – Matías Piñeiro, Donosti, Basque Country - December 18th, 2022

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