Woman is the Future of Man (2004)
Upon seeing Hong Sang-soo’s films, Marin Karmitz has recounted that he knew right away he wanted to work with Hong for his future projects. With MK2, Karmitz did just that, producing Hong’s fifth and sixth films, Woman is the Future of Man and Tale of Cinema (2005). In retrospect, for enthusiasts of Hong’s cinema these two films mark a transition. The latter builds upon the formal vocabulary of the former (and all of Hong’s previous films) with the introduction of zoom-ins/zoom-outs and voiceovers. In addition, the latter takes the peripheral detail of film found in the former (and in several of Hong’s previous films) in terms of character professions and basis for social encounters/connections and makes it the principal narrative setting. Despite comments of it being a ‘minor’ work in Hong’s filmography, Woman is the Future of Man is just as significant as Tale of Cinema, and just as absorbing to watch with its story of two friends reuniting and meeting up with a woman with whom each man had been romantically involved, within a twenty-four hour period and encapsulated in approximately fifty shots. The film presents a memorable variation of Hong’s structural precision and playfulness; his narrative of chance, desire, and memory; and his incisive portrayal of male camaraderie-conflict-competition, self-questioning, and identity.
Hong’s films about friendships and relationships, and the waxing and waning of desire, are often anchored by a couple of characters whose points of view interlace and govern the narrative.
Hong’s films about friendships and relationships, and the waxing and waning of desire, are often anchored by a couple of characters whose points of view interlace and govern the narrative. In some cases, it is a question of a quartet of men and women, which sometimes morphs into a quintet or a triplet according to the circumstances. In many cases, like Woman is the Future of Man, it is a question of a duet of men that transforms into a triplet when a woman enters the picture. Woman is the Future of Man is in some ways a more somber and insular complement to Hahaha (2010). In the latter, two friends meet and exchange anecdotes that, as the film reveals but remains unbeknownst to either man, happen to involve the same setting and group of people. Structurally similar but still different, in Woman is the Future of Man friends Mun-ho (Yoo Ji-tae) and Hyeon-gon (Kim Tae-woo) are less anecdotal with each other while the film itself provides the anecdotes that they do not tell each other: their respective experiences with the same woman, Seon-hwa (Seong Hyeon-ah).
In effect, the film’s opening scenes of Mun-ho and Hyeon-gon reuniting to catch up with each other’s post-college graduate lives already betray the uptight nature of their relationship. When they meet in front of Mun-ho’s house, he gives a feeble excuse for not inviting Hyeon-gon into his home. As if to compensate for the lack of hospitality, Mun-ho invites Hyeon-gon into the front yard to give him the ‘gift’ of walking on first snow. When they subsequently go to a restaurant for a meal, their conversation about university undergoes an abrupt tonal shift when Mun-ho tells Hyeon-gon to never again hug his wife in the American way (much too intimate for his taste). Technically, from this point the two friends’ narrative timeline involves remaining at the restaurant for an inordinate period of time, deciding to look up Seon-hwa, finding her, and then hanging out with her later that evening and into the following morning. But what happens between the tonal shift in conversation regarding Mun-ho’s wife and the friends’ departure from the restaurant is arguably the film’s most intriguing portion: the film takes up the anecdotal mantle that the characters seem to refuse, in true symmetrical Hong fashion.
…the film takes up the anecdotal mantle that the characters seem to refuse, in true symmetrical Hong fashion.
The restaurant scene is marked by each of the men left alone at the table (always perpendicular to the camera and oftentimes beside a window in a Hong film) and a cut to the memory of an event, reverie, or a combination of the two regarding Seon-hwa. These memory-reverie sequences serve two purposes: one, to reveal each man’s character further, and two, to provide a comparison with the actual Seon-hwa encountered later in the film. The disorienting part of the memory-reverie sequences is that Hong never signposts them; it is only later in the film or after a second viewing that one discovers their function relative to the rest of the film as well as their symmetry. Each man’s memory-reverie sequence is preceded by one of Hong’s signature pans of either Mung-ho or Hyeong-gon at the table, trying to get the waitress’ phone number based on his profession, looking out the window and seeing the same woman waiting on the sidewalk across the street. But symmetry in Hong’s cinema is not form for form’s sake. This particular example of symmetry is yet another way to elaborate Mung-ho and Hyeong-gon’s characters and also to invite comparisons between them, especially in relation to their treatment of Seon-hwa in their respective memory-reverie sequences and in their meeting with her later that day. If in the process the result is a thinly drawn female character, this detail too is reflective of Hong’s not-so-rosy representation of men.
Make that three purposes: if Hong’s films appear simple, even plain, his interlacing of points of view makes his films’ formal mechanics complex and fascinating, which in turn makes his characters equally so. The memory-reverie sequences can at first glance be attributed to each man. But on closer inspection, Hong plays with points of view—be it the characters’ or an omniscient one, for lack of a better term—that reveal a meticulously dynamic and adventurous approach to cinematic storytelling.
Despite comments of it being a ‘minor’ work in Hong’s filmography, Woman is the Future of Man is just as significant as Tale of Cinema, and just as absorbing to watch.