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Hong Sangsoo Retrospective: A Multiverse of Cinema at Lincoln Center

Oki's Movie & In Another Country
Film at Lincoln Center presented The Hong Sangsoo Multiverse: A Retrospective of Double Features, an impressive and exceedingly rewarding survey of the work of the fascinating Korean director, in two parts—from April 8th through the 17th and from May 4th through the 10th—and featuring all of the artist’s features as well as a couple of short films, along with a few public appearances by Hong. The series coincided with the release of the filmmaker’s new movie, the beautiful In Front of Your Face, along with a surprise screening of the even newer The Novelist’s Film, another extraordinary work due to be released later. (The prolific director has already completed a further film that has not yet premiered as well as another that has already finished shooting.)
Regrettably, not all the titles were screened in their correct formats—Hong’s early features were photographed in 35-millimeter but were shown here in digital. This was especially disappointing for me since I had previously seen only one of those films, his magnificent On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate from 2002, still the best film of Hong’s that I have viewed and I think one of the greatest works in Korean cinema. Still, I was able to watch, and in some cases, re-watch all but one of the features beginning with Like You Know It All from 2009 along with the two short films shown—the experience enormously increased my estimation of Hong’s artistry. However, the odyssey was overwhelming for a journalist covering the series given the imposing size of theoeuvre,a fact compounded in difficulty by the similarity and repetition to be found among the films, each of which is deserving of multiple viewings and indeed generally requires as much since the works don’t reveal their secrets on a single encounter. In light of these challenges, it seemed that a more profitable approach to reporting on the retrospective would be to collate the most edifying excerpts from the best criticism on Hong’s work that I could find, along with the most useful statements from the director’s interviews that I came across, plus some brief descriptions of the films. The compilation follows.
Hahaha (2010)
The major neoformalist critic David Bordwell, in one of his several excellent posts from his blog analyzing Hong’s works, provides thispréciswith a brief appended commentary:
It’s an unspoken convention of recounted-flashback tales that even though the events are told by A, B learns everything that we do—everything, that is, that we can see or hear in the flashback. ButHahahadecouples the verbal recounting from the visual presentation. Here listener B definitely does not grasp what we witness happening onscreen in the tale as told.
Hahahais a parallel-protagonist tale. Two pals meet for some drinking before one, Munkyung, leaves South Korea for Canada. Through a series of flashbacks, they regale each other with their recent adventures, mostly amorous. The plot is structured as two alternating streams, crosscutting one man’s tale with the other’s and usually returning to the framing situation of their drinking bout. But because we can see what each one recounts, we come to realize that both stories are populated by the same people, notably the tempting female tour guide Seongok. And those people have their own relationships, which we must piece together out of the glimpses we get in each man’s tale.
Neither Munkyung nor his pal Jungshik has a clue that they are part of a fairly tight circle. The result, as usual with Hong, is a comedy of ironic misunderstanding and the puncturing of male pretension.Hahahacan also be seen as his response to the rise of network narratives. Characters in such a film don’t usually realize the larger mosaic they’re part of [ . . . . ] Normally that lack of awareness isn’t the main point of the film. Here it is, and it’s wrung for classic humor at the protagonists’ expense.
Oki’s Movie (2010)
Bordwell encapsulates the film as follows:
In Oki’s Movie, Hong gives us another fractured plot, but now in the form of four short films. They center on three characters: Song, a film director turned professor; his student Jingu; and Oki, the woman both men are interested in. The raggedy credits of each short suggest handmade movies, but what we see in each one is the polished style familiar from Hong himself, including his current interest in abrupt zooms.
He adds: 
The four-part structure is far from transparent. It might be taken as a series of episodes from the trio’s lives.
And: “Perhaps, though, all four films are free hypothetical variations on the central situation.”
And further:
The idea of ambiguous variation is made explicit in the final mini-film, “Oki’s Movie.” It’s a sustained exercise in—yes, again—crosscutting.
He concludes:
In both Hahaha and Oki’s Movie, Hong takes what’s offered by tradition—in this case, the romantic comedy and the conventions of flashbacks, crosscutting, and restricted narration—and creates a fresh structure. The play of novelty and norm is engrossing in itself, apart from the vagaries of the drama. 
The Day He Arrives (2011)
Screened in a superb 35-millimeter print, itself an unusually successful transfer from a digital format, Film at Lincoln Center’s program note describes it this way: 
a creatively blocked director currently teaching film (Yoo Joon-sang) arrives in Seoul to meet with an old friend, only for that friend to seemingly stand him up. He then sets about wandering the streets, encountering several women and drinking a fair amount of soju along the way. The night draws to a close and a new day dawns, though this new day feels suspiciously similar to the one that preceded it.
In an interview for10Asia,Hong spoke illuminatingly about the new departures in narrative form that emerged with this work: 
But instead of going with my previous method of seeking out the moments that are repetitive while the story moves forward, I wondered what it would be like to go with an idea that repeats itself in its entirety. I started with the thought that a man would go to the same place three times and then we'd see what happens.
He went on to discuss the look of the film:
I shotThe Day He Arrivesin color and tried switching it to black-and-white just to see what it's like but it looked better. And I was lucky. You need to shoot black-and-white films a bit differently, such as with the lighting and all, but the contrast was already strong thanks to the structure of the lights for the scenes shot indoors and the clothes that the cast wore, Kim Bo-kyung's white blouse in particular, looked nice in black-and-white. It goes down to personal taste but I guess I thought that winter in Seoul went well with black-and-white.
In Another Country (2012)
Bordwell’s comment and paraphrase:
It’s a measure of Hong’s growing international reputation that Isabelle Huppert is recruited to play three roles in another mazelike plot.
Yonju, staying with her mother in a coastal hotel and beset by family problems, tries writing film scripts. In the first, Anne, a French filmmaker, is vacationing with a South Korean director and his pregnant wife. As Anne gets involved with a hunky, good-natured lifeguard, the director is also making a play for her. Cut back to Yonju, trying another draft. In this one, Anne is a rich housewife from Seoul having an affair with a married man—again a director, but played by a different actor. As she waits for him to join her at the hotel, she meets the same lifeguard and romantic complications ensue. Back to Yonju trying another draft. Now Anne is accompanied by another woman, an older professor. They meet the first director, pregnant wife again in tow, while Anne has become preoccupied with getting life advice from a monk. Once more, needless to say, the lifeguard plays a central role.
He insightfully says:
In Another Country provides plenty of social comedy. Hong’s customary satire of Korean males’ awkward sexual aggressiveness is now accompanied by digs at westerners’ search for mystic Asian enlightenment. But the narrative structure is amusing in itself. Hong cajoles us into enjoying the surprising but inevitable recycling of situations, lines, and camera setups. Few filmmakers can make audiences laugh at the mere appearance of a shot and tease us to expect a replay of or departure from what we’ve already seen. Even if we couldn’t say precisely when we saw that image before, we recognize it and participate in a light-hearted game—the game of form.
Our Sunhi (2013)
Bordwell recounts:
Our Sunhiis about a hugely momentous event that hasn’t, to my knowledge, been dramatized on film before: a professor writing a grad-school recommendation. Sunhi approaches Professor Choi for a reference that will help her study in the States. As she coaxes him into revising his initially cool letter, he becomes attracted to her, as does another university employee Jaehak. Meanwhile Sunhi meets her old lover Munsu, and he becomes attracted to her all over again.
He adds usefully about the film’s ending:
This sheerly formal gag is pretty esoteric, I grant you, but it’s typical of Hong’s urge to tweak the simplest materials. In his hands, the lowly two-shot becomes a structuring constraint, a way of deliberately limiting his choices to show us what he can do with it–not least, comic variation.
Hill of Freedom (2014)
David Bordwell reprises the film’s story while highlighting its eccentricities:
Hong Sangsoo has been playing with time from the start of his career. He has tried replays from different viewpoints (The Power of Kangwon Province, 1998), replays that differ in details (The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, 2000), odd déjà-vu experiences (Turning Gate, 2002), and all manner of theme-and-variations plotting [ . . . . ] So it’s a bit surprising to find him exhuming  the old reliable setup of letters recounting events in the past. Yet here as ever he has a couple of tricks up his sleeve.
[ . . . ] Hong has scrambled the flashbacks inHill of Freedom, but he offers a comically exact motivation. Kwon, a young language teacher in Seoul, returns to find a sheaf of letters written to her by a Japanese admirer, Mori. He taught with her at the school two years earlier. He has come to Seoul to reunite with her, and he has left her a letter every day. She starts to read them in the school lobby, and Mori’s voice-over narration establishes the beginning of his story. He tells how he found lodging, left a note at Kwon’s apartment, and paid his first visit to the “Hill of Freedom” café.
So far, 1-2-3 preparation. But when Kwon starts to leave the language institute, she staggers on the staircase, as if stricken, and scatters the letters on the steps. She gathers them back up in random order. This sets up the scrambled timeline of the flashbacks to come. (Hong mischievously zooms in on a letter she fails to retrieve, hinting at a gap in the story that will follow.)
What Kwon learns, in mixed-up order, is that Mori’s search for her leads him to meet and hang out with his landlady’s nephew, while also becoming romantically involved with Youngsun, the café owner. In the grip of a possessive lover, Youngsun attaches herself to the fairly passive Mori. Their affair plays out in Hong’s usual mix of drinking bouts and pillow talk.
By the time we’re used to this pattern, Hong sets up a new game. As he keeps cutting back to Kwon reading through the letters, accompanied by Mori’s voice-over, Hong gradually reveals that she is reading them in the Hill of Freedom café—the very place Mori hoped to meet with her (but never did).
He adds in conclusion: “Hong’s usual themes of the foolish arrogance of Korean men and the comedy of male-female interactions are given new expression in this lightweight but enjoyable movie.”
The distinguished filmmaker and sometime critic Dan Sallitt on his blog, “Thanks for the Use of the Hall,” provides his ownekphrasisafter a general observation:
It's Hong's nature to throw undigested material pell-mell into the crannies of his movies: he's not interested in integrating it into a schema (in fact, the idea would surely repel him), but the impact of his films lies in the wash of dissonance created by this material, a dissonance that belies the light comedy of the films' surface structure.
The first layer ofHill of Freedomis a puzzle, but not a difficult one. The story of the ill-planned visit to Seoul by Japanese Mori (Ryô Kase) is told via a bundle of letters that he sent to his romantic object Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), who was out of town while Mori was searching for her.  Before she reads the letters, she drops them, assembling them in the wrong order and losing one page.  Thus the story is told with a jumbled chronology that recalls Resnais'sJe t'aime, je t'aime. At film's end, Kwon finishes the letters and finds Mori on the eve of his return to Japan.  Mori's subsequent narration announces a happy ending, with Kwon moving to Japan with him and the couple having two children.
The events of Mori's stay are, typically for Hong, staged as awkward comedy: a series of encounters that are at best failed connections papered over with good will, and at worst open warfare, with the most notable of the encounters being Mori's affair with the friendly waitress Young-sun (Moon So-ri, wonderfully dotty).  We see almost nothing here of Hong's usual device of giving alternate, incompatible versions of the same event.  
He adds:
But the detail that Hong creates underneath the lightly borne surface structure is amorphous and bottomless.  What makes him a great filmmaker is the effortlessness with which he generates this behavioral material: clearly this is a case of the artist living within the act of creation, with no sense of labor in the way he fills his canvas with disorienting details.
He closes with a useful comparison: 
In summary, a different film lurks beneath the ragtag fairytale story that we piece together.  And this not-very-hidden under-film speaks to us, obscurely to be sure, of sickness, violence, dissolution, and bad decisions.
Hong is frequently, and I think reasonably, compared to Rohmer, and Mori's sleepiness and its relation to our spectatorship forges an especially strong link betweenHill of Freedomand Rohmer'sLa femme de l'aviateur (The Aviator's Wife).  If one were to synopsize the similarities and differences in the way the two filmmakers use narrative, one might say that Rohmer creates a contrast between his characters' ability to construct clean conceptual frameworks, and the entropic reality that is always too multifarious to support the narratives that the characters create.  Whereas it is Hong himself, not his characters, who sets up the rickety infrastructure of a decipherable world, all the while feeding in a darkness and surrealism that makes modernist art impossible to sustain.
Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)
This brief summary is from Jonathan Romney’s perceptive Film Comment review:
At first sight, Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then looks pretty familiar. It tells two stories, or the same one twice over: a film director visits an unfamiliar town, spends a day with a younger woman he meets, and possibly learns something about himself (or fails to). Along the way, he drinks too much soju and makes a fool of himself.
He adds:
Both sections feature a youngish-verging-on-middle-aged film director named not Hong Sangsoo, but Ham Chunsu (Jung Jaeyoung, from Hong’s Our Sunhi)—which is near enough for comic discomfort. He’s visiting the town of Suwon to present one of his films, but has arrived a day early. 
And: "However, as usual with such “either-or/both-and” narrative constructions, you can never be sure about the exact status of the events you’re viewing; neither version is any more real than the other.” He accurately observes: "This film shows Hong in delicate miniature mode, and while we may think we’ve seen it all before, what’s distinctive is the musical delicacy with which he adjusts small but all-important inflections.” And he adds:
What are we witnessing here? Love? Lust? Or just lines? We don’t really know, yet we’re never far from seeing real emotions floating to the surface, and from seeing those emotions yield ironic comedy.
And he concludes:
There’s a sweetly weary resignation to the idea of life going on, repeating itself incessantly, as people make the same mistakes over and over again, yet survive them by the skin of their teeth. The essential tone of his films could be described as “deep inconsequentiality”—and maybe there are some substantial insights to be had from their superficiality. One is the lesson that drunkenness is the truest form of honesty. 
Hong commented in an interview for Mubi:
But this time, the film doesn't get a lot of help from the structure itself or the difference in storyline. Even though it looks doubled, the differences are very much in small details, like the differences in the emotional attitudes, facial expressions, voice intonations, things like that. That's what I wanted to do in the beginning, I realized, maybe I wanted to make a film that doubled structurally, but the difference is heavily in the surface level. If there is an obvious difference in storyline or it's structurally completed and understandable at the end, it's easy. But this one—what is this? [laughs] Just two different worlds that logically cannot be explained. Just different worlds. You can sense the difference. Because I cannot make a clear explanation of the relation between two parts; I was hoping that the audience can go to this kind of limbo state, if I can call it this, and “oooh, what is life?” or something like that. [laughs] Maybe that's what I want.
In an interview for Cinema Scope, Hong further said in this connection:
In comparing these two parts, if I can call them parts, some elements can be well connected, and make the audience feel that they can explain the difference between the two in terms of morals and attitudes. But some elements are not meant to be like that, and the two worlds are meant to be quite independent. If one is able to offer a clear explanation about the relationship between the two parts, then that can be a pleasant thing. But that encloses everything…You know what I mean? This way we can proceed with some pleasure of making sense, but still feel that the two parts are quite independent. Not one moralistic message.
He added:
If you believe there’s a clear reason for these two worlds to exist, once you find a clear meaning between them, then these worlds themselves disappear. Once we make clear sense out of these two worlds, they are just used up. It happens that it’s not easy to give them a clear meaning. So all the questions are kept alive if there’s an infinite possibility of worlds. It’s like a permanent reverberation.
Yourself and Yours (2016)
From the program note:
Painter Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuk) hears secondhand that his girlfriend, Min-jung (Lee Yoo-young), has recently had (many) drinks with an unknown man. This leads to a quarrel that seems to end their relationship. The next day, Young-soo sets out in search of Min-jung, while she—or a woman who looks exactly like her and may or may not be her twin—has a series of encounters with strange men, some of whom claim to have met her before.
Bordwell acutely remarks:
If the auteur theory didn’t exist, it would have to be invented to account for the effect ofYourself and Yours. In any other movie, when a man recognizes a young woman in a café, and she says he’s mistaken her for her twin, we might be inclined to take it as a brush-off. In a Hong movie, the scene makes us think back through all his other plots that have relied on doubling. So maybe this time he’s found a new variation? Has he got an actual pair of twins who will circulate through the scenes, constantly being taken for one another?
On the Beach at Night Alone ()
The program note provides this brief description:
The film begins in Hamburg, where actress Young-hee (played by Kim herself, who won the Best Actress prize at Berlin for this role) is hiding out after the revelation of her affair with a married filmmaker. Back in Korea, a series of encounters shed light on Young-hee’s volatile state, as she slips in and out of melancholic reflection and dreams.
Romney’s review in Film Comment is characteristically intelligent. He remarks:
I wonder whether Kim Min-hee would come across as quite so mercurial and troubling here if we hadn’t previously seen her as the protean, infinitely deceptive ingénue fatalein Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. I suspect she would, but that past knowledge certainly adds a layer of meaning to her performance. More immediately pertinent, it also adds further resonance to know that Kim Min-hee and Hong Sangsoo were themselves having an affair, which they eventually announced publicly [ . . . . ]
It’s perhaps this real-life back story—whether the viewer is aware of it or not—that contributes an emotional intensity not always foremost in Hong’s films, which tend to be somewhat coolly detached moral comedies. Kim herself, on screen practically throughout, charges the film from start to finish with a magnetic intensity, whether she’s in full-blown soju-fury mode or more introspectively melancholic. The film comes in two parts—Hong often segments his films into self-contained units—and you might even choose to see it as two films (each chapter comes with its own opening credits).
He adds:
The brilliance of Kim’s performance is that she’s so hard to read throughout, not because she conceals emotion but because her face, rounded and impish, seems to convey so many things at once: in these table-talk scenes, where she’s seen largely in profile, her face can suggest at once tenderness, amusement, and outright contempt, or perhaps all at once. It would be wonderful to see Min play out-and-out comedy, but what she gives here is something much more nuanced and shifting, a portrait of a woman whose energies are constantly mobilized to fight her pain, and constantly restraining herself from going on the attack against everyone around her. It’s often said that people find it hard to distinguish Hong’s films from one another except in their finer details and their individual structural peculiarities, but this one very much stands alone in its melancholic tone, the sense of carrying the weight of emotional bruising.
And: "This is also, in the emotional depth that Kim brings to her depiction of Younghee, one of this year’s most fully rounded pictures of a complex female personality, sexually and emotionally aware of who she is, and seeing her struggles through for better or worse."
The Day After(2017)
The program note says the following: 
Shot in moody black and white,The Day Afteropens with book publisher Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) fending off his wife’s heated accusations of infidelity. At the office, it’s the first day for his new assistant, Areum (Kim Min-hee), whose predecessor was Bongwan’s lover. Mistaken identity, repetition compulsion, and déjà vu figure into the narrative, as the film entangles its characters across multiple timelines through an intricate geometry of desire, suspicion, and betrayal.
In a rewarding article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Xueli Wang astutely describes Hong’soeuvre:
Herein lies the most intriguing part of Hong’s play with time: the apparent continuity between discontinuous moments and realms.
This continuity comes in part from the deceptive realism of Hong’s film world, which typically consists of creative types in Korea, messy romances, desolate vacations, long meals, circuitous conversations, and emotional outbursts after too much soju. These narratives play out across dreams, memories, and present realities without any shift in tone, texture, or logic.
The result is a world that possesses the unreality of a dream, but without the manifest strangeness of surrealism, only tickling oddities — a random dog, an overzealous window washer, funny coincidences and parallels — in situations that are otherwise perfectly, disarmingly quotidian. Paradoxically, this intensifies the mystery of each scene: Is this past or present? Dream or waking life? Where are we in time and consciousness?
This mystery hovers over The Day After (2017), Hong’s latest film to receive a US theatrical release. 
She adds, citing Bordwell’s analysis of Hong’s approach:
Despite his preference for the long take, Hong’s is not an aesthetic of austerity and contemplation. In fact, his long takes, usually of characters in conversation, feature frequent zooms and pans that dilute the durational effect of an unbroken shot. Unlike slow cinema in the Ozu tradition, then, Hong’s experiment with time is rarely felt in any single shot but rather in thearrangementof shots and scenes. Bordwell refers to this as Hong’s “geometric model” of storytelling — a more rigorous narrative structure than that employed by his Asian contemporaries — which carefully builds a hidden pattern of repetition and symmetry into the story. It’s this geometric storytelling, Bordwell argues, that sets Hong apart from his “Asian minimalist” peers.
But Bordwell perhaps does not go far enough. What sets Hong apart goes beyond narrative structure, and lies more fundamentally in his particular interest in time. Whereas slow cinema foregrounds time’s physical passage, Hong foregrounds its deeply subjective nature. His is not time that flows independently of the human subject, but time as remembered or dreamed, though not necessarily by any particular character. The Day After, for example, does not feature personal flashbacks; nevertheless, it follows a sequential logic that can only emerge in retrospect, when associations form between nonconsecutive moments. This is a kind of time only tenuously connected to the real.
She says further:
As [Hong] declared in one interview: “The fragments of memory, dream, imagination and fragments of reality are just different in name only, but they all share homogeneity.”
This mysterious homogeneity keeps Hong’s film world forever riveting, no matter how mundane the action.
Hotel by the River (2018)
The invaluable neoformalist critic Kristin Thompson summarizes it thus on David Bordwell’s blog:
The story involves an aging poet who somehow senses that he is going to die soon and settles in at the hotel to wait for death. His two sons, one a well-known art-film director with a creative block and the other secretly divorced, come to visit. A young woman who has recently broken up with her married lover is visited by a sympathetic character who may be her sister, cousin, or friend. They encounter the poet by the river, and he compliments them effusively for adding to the beauty of the scene. Conversations about life ensue. The women take naps, the men bicker. Sang-soo’s typical parallels and repetitions unfold. It’s a lovely film.
She comments:
It’s an impressive film, in part by virtue of its setting. The Hotel Heimat stands beside a river which is covered in ice and snow. Even the further shore with its mountains, is reduced to shades of light gray in the misty, cold light. All of this is enhanced by the black-and-white cinematography that creates a background against which the characters and the small trees create simple, austere compositions.

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