An Act as Simple as Dreaming
This article appeared in the May 2, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
This is an excerpt from Dennis Lim’s Tale of Cinema, the fourth release in the Decadent Editions series from Fireflies Press. The book is available for pre-order from the Fireflies Press website.
As I worked on this book, I was also planning a Hong retrospective in New York, and in the course of doing so, wondering if there is an optimal way to encounter the films. If one were to watch Hong’s many movies in chronological order, would this reveal a meaningful progression? There have certainly been developments over time: Hong’s stripped-down methods have produced equivalently unfussy films in which events and locations are kept to a minimum; he has grown more curious about the perspectives of female characters; age has brought a mellowing in his temperament; the principles of doubling so present in his earlier films have loosened, resulting in structures that are sometimes more straightforward, sometimes more eccentric. But linear change is an insufficient, maybe inapt, metric for a filmmaker so obsessed with the eternal return. ‘Time is not a real thing,’ says the earnest hero of Hill of Freedom. So it can seem in the Hong multiverse.
Rather than chart a trajectory from the start to the present, it seemed more interesting, more productive, to find frameworks to impose on the mass of films, lenses to help see through the haze. One could take a cue from the gender divide that governs so much in Hong and set the male-centered films against the female-centered ones. There are films in color and films in black and white. There are those that unfold in or around the workplace—film schools, film festivals, a publisher’s office—and those that accompany their protagonists on trips, often to coastal locations. (Sometimes these coincide, as with the Cannes-set Claire’s Camera.) Given Hong’s sensitivity to meteorology and, correspondingly, the mental weather of his characters, one could classify them according to their seasonal settings, as with Éric Rohmer. One could even group these boozy films based on drink of choice: soju, Korea’s most popular alcoholic beverage, is easily the most common, but makgeolli, beer, wine and the Chinese liquor baijiu all make important appearances.
It is possible to trace paths through Hong by following a particular actor. Tale of Cinema is the second of three films Hong made with Kim Sangkyung (who plays Dong-soo), all of them deft and funny portraits of manchild psychology. The cycle of films starring Jun Yumi coincide with an evolutionary period notable for the changing role of women; the very titles Oki’s Movie and Our Sunhi suggest a self-consciousness about the status of female protagonists as subjects or objects. The actress Kim Min-hee, Hong’s partner since they worked together on Right Now, Wrong Then, has her own suite of films, many of them notable for their unflinching directness and for refracting the tabloid drama that played out in Korea around their relationship.
I considered using Hong’s ever-present formal strategies as organizing rubrics. His bisected films form one prominent category, within which are those that emphasize dueling perspectives (The Power of Kangwon Province) and those shaped around the repetition of events (Right Now, Wrong Then). Another cluster plays with chronology, resisting linearity through unsignaled flashbacks (The Day After) or narrative devices (the scattered stack of letters that sequences Hill of Freedom), though sometimes for no earthly reason (The Day He Arrives appears to take place in a time warp, in which the action by turns progresses, stalls and repeats). As for Tale of Cinema, like the three-part In Another Country or the four-part Oki’s Movie, it belongs to the class of Hong film that migrates from one plane of reality to another. This happens via a story within a story, a mise en abyme, but sometimes the shift emerges through an act as simple as dreaming (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon).
As I grouped and regrouped the films, and in turn arranged those groups into intersecting Venn diagrams, it soon became clear that this was a limiting exercise: even if a certain taxonomy was true, it was never true enough. Whatever form the retrospective took, I hoped that it would at minimum convey two things about Hong’s work—firstly, that its meaning and pleasures are cumulative (a single movie gives little sense of his project), and secondly, that his is an unfixed body of work, prismatic and modular. The best solution I could muster was to screen every film as part of a double bill, but not in set pairings, so that each film is coupled with a different one each time. (Tale of Cinema, for instance, was shown with Turning Gate, another film whose course is seemingly dictated by an embedded fiction, and with Oki’s Movie, an even more ambiguous treatment of the film within a film device.) In a garden of forking paths—where all, as Borges would have it, are fated to lose their way—maps are of limited use.
Fassbinder once said that he sought to build a house with his films, each one a wall or floor or window. Such a process would start with foundational works, culminate in career capstones, and finally reveal a representative edifice. What might Hong’s house look like? Its shape already seems clear and has been for some time. But this house is also a rapidly expanding site of perpetual renovation, not to mention a source of perceptual confusion, capable of optical illusions and tricks of perspective. Should we even be thinking of Hong as building a house? The notion of a finished structure—even years from now, when all is said and done—seems antithetical to a cinema so wedded to the partial and the provisional.
The challenge of envisioning Hong’s metaphorical house of films is related to that of situating him within the world cinema landscape: what neighborhood is it in? Hong is at once an omnipresent and an elusive figure, both fixture and outlier. There is never not a new Hong. He leaves no time for anticipation, little room for reflection. There is a sense that he works too quickly for us to grasp the subtle interrelations among the films, that we see only forest and not trees. With each new entry in the filmography, the reviews pile up, more repetitive even than the films.
Looking for footholds, Hong’s interpreters are wont to compare him to other filmmakers. And much like Hong’s characters, they can insist too much on a resemblance, one that fails to hold for anyone looking closely enough. The Cannes festival director Thierry Fremaux deemed him ‘the Korean Woody Allen’—a shorthand that, one supposes, highlights the neurotic male leads and the quasi-autobiographical elements. Especially in the early years, French reference points predominated: Rohmer for the recurrence of romantic confusion and the verbosity of the characters, or Alain Resnais for the structural complexity; some have invoked the bracingly unsentimental sensibilities of post-New Wave filmmakers like Jean Eustache and Maurice Pialat. Hong is sometimes bracketed within the generational movement known as the New Korean Cinema, albeit as an anomaly within a cohort that includes Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong, all more invested in sociopolitical commentary, genre reinvention, or both. Hong, for his part, does not make it easy for his exegetes.
His fondness for ambiguity extends to misdirection. Consider his titles: there are no pigs or wells in The Day a Pig Fell into the Well. On the Beach at Night Alone contains no solitary nocturnal beach scenes. It is not fully clear which day The Day After and The Day He Arrives refer to, which woman qualifies as the Woman on the Beach or The Woman Who Ran. His titles allude to Cheever (The Day a Pig), Duchamp (Virgin Stripped Bare), Whitman (On the Beach), but it would be folly to construe the work as homage. Hong’s films are filled with unreadable signs—the scholar Jacques Aumont calls them ‘idiocies’, by which he means eruptions of ‘the unreasonable or the arbitrary.’ These seemingly trivial yet stubbornly conspicuous details—a milk carton on a bench, a gum wrapper on the ice, a vomited hunk of octopus in the snow—are too opaque, and surely too nonsensical, to carry symbolic value, and yet they lodge in the mind. Watch enough of Hong, and you will know that the significance attached to a character, object or event can flip in a moment; you are liable to be wrong-footed at any point. The intertitles that precede each chapter of Turning Gate telegraph an event we are about to witness (a phone call, a quarrel), except in one instance, when no such thing happens. Tale of Cinema opens with an overhead shot of a busy Seoul thoroughfare, where the camera singles out a man we assume to be the protagonist. He turns out to be a minor character, barely heard from again.
Hong is himself known to be a reluctant interviewee who favors deflection and terse responses. Having interviewed him several times, both in public settings and for publication, I think it is more accurate to say that he is matter-of-factly forthcoming when discussing process but clams up when the questioning turns to intent and interpretation. The squirm-inducing depictions of post-screening Q&As in his movies suggest that Hong sees the exercise as a ritual abasement. Without fail, the filmmakers in these scenes are bombarded with questions that are uncomprehending, if not downright contemptuous. In Oki’s Movie: ‘The film seems to be saying many things. What did you want to convey the most?’ In Right Now, Wrong Then: ‘What are films to you, director? Could you sum it up in one sentence?’ Bluntest of all is this cut to the quick in Like You Know It All: ‘Why do you make films like this?’ Hong’s on-screen surrogates, always the butts of the joke, are also tasked as mouthpieces. Even as they flail and bluster, they advance Hongian manifestos with the ring of truth. ‘I just made them and the rest is up to you,’ says the director character in Like You Know It All. ‘My films are not dramas that you’re used to. No clear messages, ambiguous at best. No beautiful images either. I can only do one thing. I jump into the process without preconceived ideas. I gather the pieces I discover and make them into one. You might not like the result. No one might.’
It may be apparent by now that the difficulty I have been describing—the difficulty of seeing Hong clearly, of orienting oneself within a shape-shifting hall of mirrors—is mine as well. Whenever I told anyone familiar with Hong’s work that I was writing a small book about one of his films, the question that usually followed was, Why one? There is something perverse about isolating one film from a densely interconnected corpus in which the parts and the whole are inseparable—pulling a brick out of Hong’s house, so to speak. I was also asked, Why that one? For some of my acquaintances, Tale of Cinema was a beloved Hong; others remembered it only dimly. This is no surprise: comparing notes with Hong’s admirers over the years, I have often found that preferences diverge. Even the most diligent efforts to keep up are doomed to the fog of repetition and the vagaries of memory, which can make it hard to pick favorites, let alone identify an entry point, a Rosetta stone.
Tale of Cinema seems as good a way in as any, possibly better than most, since it can lay claim to being an inflection point of sorts. It was Hong’s first self-produced film. It introduces two devices previously absent in his work: the zoom and the voiceover, both of which he has continued to deploy, often in counterintuitive ways. It is his last film with an explicit sex scene, and as such, a window into his evolving attitudes toward gender relations. A comedy about suicidal ideation, it is a striking case study of Hongian tone, in which lightness and drollery barely mask or collide with something darker, more troubling. It is also the first Hong film to foreground the practice of filmmaking. Its very title bears the promise of a parable, and in its way, it has lessons to impart on the possibilities and limits, the uses and abuses, of cinema—which makes it a handy reflexive key to Hong’s project.
If there is a filmmaker who ill suits a single-minded focus, it is Hong. Taking a cue from his favored tactic of doubling, I am endeavoring here a kind of Hongian experiment, attempting two paths through—and around—Tale of Cinema. One path cuts through the film itself, while the other hovers at a remove. In a bid to see better how Hong does what he does, one could do worse than borrow some of his maneuvers: adopt shifts in scale and perspective, move between parts and whole. I have a hunch that Hong continues to elude us not just because he works quickly, not just because he uses repetition and variation, but because we tend to emphasize one aspect over its dialectical other in assessing his films. Hong’s art of paradox requires us to attend to content and to form, to consider the mundane alongside the cosmic. I love his movies for their offhandedness and irreverence; I value them no less for their serious conviction that film is an instrument of thought. On the one hand, we have Hong the quick-sketch artist and congenital piss-taker; on the other, Hong the seeker of knowledge and philosopher of the cinema. One does not exist without the other.
Dennis Lim is the Artistic Director of the New York Film Festival and was Director of Programming at Film at Lincoln Center from 2013 to 2022. His previous book David Lynch: The Man From Another Place (2015) has been translated into three languages.