Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today: In Hong Sang-soo Country


Editor’s Notes: The following article and review is a a part of Rowena Santos Aquino’s coverage of the Korean film series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today”. Additional entries can be found here.

In his 2008 film Night and Day, a film commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay, for the first time Hong Sang-soo took his proverbial cast of artists, intellectuals, and/or students outside of Korea,  transplanted them to Paris, and let them loose in their pursuit of (or at times, flight from) romantic entanglements and soju. For a filmmaker like Hong, who often begins the construction of his film with the physicality and tone of place, this transplantation was significant. At the same time, Hong’s encounter with France was perhaps only a matter of time. By the time he began to make Night and Day, his cinema of love triangles, infidelities and jealousies, and conversations lined with desire as well as deception (and often with soju), among a group of people linked through friendship or work, often set in a seaside town, had prompted critics to find in Hong a kindred spirit of the late French filmmaker Eric Rohmer.

Like Rohmer, Hong’s formally minimalist films belie a complex narrative construction where chance and predetermination delicately combat each other—resulting in awkwardness for Hong’s characters in terms of physical relations and dialogue, and insight and comedy for Hong’s spectators. “Insight” and “comedy” may seem like exaggerations for those faintly familiar with Hong’s films, but like Rohmer, through his menagerie of male characters imbued with desire, fantasy, and a stubborn sense of self-importance and female characters who possess a paradoxical mixture of no-nonsense emotionality and desire of their own, Hong is able to provoke wry reflections of human relationships on the one hand and meticulous dissections of the nature of cinematic storytelling on the other. In fact, Hong’s methodical preoccupations with human relationships and cinematic storytelling—often made one and the same by making his characters filmmakers, actors, producers, film professors, film students, and film critics—is not only what differentiates him from Rohmer but what makes his cinema endlessly fascinating. For these twin preoccupations are nothing if not about expression, representation, and the Bazinian question of “What is cinema?”

When word got out in 2011 that Hong would be making a film with French actress Isabelle Huppert, the news was both surprising and expected, similar to the myriad encounters between men and women in Hong’s films. For like Hong in France, it was only a matter of time for Hong to transplant a part of French cinema to Korea—in this case, the body of Huppert—following the production of Night and Day and the logic of variation and circularity that he pursues from one film to the next. The resulting film with Huppert is In Another Country, which incidentally could well have been the title of Night and Day.

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Rowena Santos Aquino

Senior Film Critic. Recently obtained my doctoral degree in Cinema and Media studies at UCLA. Linguaphile and cinephile, and therefore multingual in my cinephilia. Asian cinemas, Spanish language filmmaking, Middle Eastern cinemas, and documentary film.