The Flux of Life in Two Recent Hong Sang-soo Films
Hong Sang-soo, prolific as usual, had three films released this year: On the Beach at Night Alone, The Day After, and Claire’s Camera. Although this piece will focus in depth on the first two films, all three provide further evidence that Hong has one of the most coherent bodies of work in contemporary cinema. Like those of Yasujirō Ozu, Philippe Garrel, and Eric Rohmer, a Hong film can be appreciated on its own, but grows in richness when placed in the context of his ever-expanding body of work. His films may be similar in aesthetic (a direct approach with sequence shots, simple pans and flagrant zooms that accentuate actors’ performances), but this only draws attention to the different shades that set apart one film from another.
Take the characters for instance: Hong’s are in fluid stages of their lives. Some are coming home and others are leaving. They’ve broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. They’re meeting with a former lover. They’re getting over a death. And they’re starting to see someone else while going home to a suspicious partner.
One such character can be found in On the Beach at Night Alone, the best of three exceptional films. Beach is split into two parts: the first lasts about thirty minutes and the second goes on for an hour and ten minutes. Beach follows the assertive actress Young-hee (Kim Min-hee in her best performance yet). In the first part, Hong introduces her by shooting Young-hee in a medium close-up. She’s smoking while facing away from the camera. Slowly she turns while someone peers out of the right-hand side of the frame. All at once, Hong zooms out, revealing that Young-hee is standing at a table with the older and divorced Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), who turns out to be a friend. They’re in Hamburg, Germany, in a street market. Jee-young is here for a man while Young-hee is in the country after a publicized affair with a married and acclaimed filmmaker, trying to come to terms with the lingering impact the relationship has had on her. In fact, she’s supposed to meet him in Hamburg, but the time of his arrival is drawing near, and it looks like he’s going to flake out. With or without him, she wants to move on. “What I want is to live in a way that suits me. To be strong, and whatever happens, to live my own way,” she tells Jee-young. As Beach progresses, Young-hee is of two minds: She’s trying to live her life to the fullest, but she’s emotionally constrained by the ambiguous status of her relationship.
Contributing to Beach’s gentle oneiric quality, the second part fades in with Young-hee watching a film in an empty auditorium. She’s now back in Gangneung — her sleepy hometown. She goes to familiar places and runs into friends. At a café, she chats with Myung-soo (Jae-yeong Jeong), who seems old now that he has a partner. Young-hee’s unexpected arrival causes Myung-soo to lie: he tells her that he’s friendly with the café owner when in actuality he’s married to her.
Young-hee attends another dinner party with Myung-soo, his wife, and two other friends. If Hong’s films feature transitory characters, the same can be said for the moods that he creates. The dinner party scene is drunkenly ebullient at first, then tense as Young-hee berates them for their inability to love, and ends with a mixture of feelings as Young-hee and her female friend kiss. Some are amused while others uncomfortably turn away.
Towards the end of Beach, in one final dinner scene, Young-hee confronts her ex-boyfriend (Seon-kun Mun). Something is off though. The dramaturgy is slightly heightened as Young-hee faces the filmmaker amongst his crew. Hong pans back and forth between Young-hee and the director, often zooming in and reframing, then zooming out to a master shot, thereby shifting characters’ spatial relations and emphasizing their importance over others. Hong’s tracking the minute shifts in behavior from moment to moment within a shot. By the end, he reveals that the scene was all a dream as Young-hee wakes up from slumbering silently on the beach. The film ends, leaving one to wonder if this is an exorcism of the director’s presence in her life or, despite the tension, an indication that she still loves him.
The Day After is the opposite of Beach. Where the latter comes across as a muted reverie with its soft colors, Hong renders the former in chilly monochrome (his first black-and-white picture since 2011’s The Day He Arrives). Filmed primarily in an office and a few cafes, The Day After feels quietly stifling. Adding to the film’s oppressive atmosphere, Hong seems to shoot with tighter close-ups than usual. Where Beach centers on a strong and direct woman, The Day After follows Kim Bong-wan (Hae-hyo Kwon), a cowardly independent book publisher who doesn’t have the courage of his convictions. In the beginning, seen in profile, he’s eating at 4:30 AM in his kitchen. As with the opening of Beach, Hong pulls back to a master shot, revealing his wife seated at the opposite end of the table. She starts to question him. Why can’t you sleep? What’s bothering you? Deadly serious, she then asks if he’s seeing someone. Hong doesn’t cut; he simply lingers on a man stewing. Bong-wan doesn’t say a word. He looks directly into her eyes. He looks at his food, and the scene concludes with him chuckling. He can’t even tell his wife that he’s having an affair, even though it’s clear from his silence, the pauses in his movements, and his low spirits that he’s lying through his teeth.
In flashbacks, which aren’t immediately apparent as such and thus seem as if happening in the present, Bong-wan is seen embracing his sole employee, an assistant by the name of Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk). Once the affair comes to a bitter end, Chang-sook quits. Areum (Kim Min-hee) fills her place, and Bong-wan falls for her. What follows, at first, is a case of mistaken identity, for Bong-wan’s wife assumes Areum is his lover. She even goes so far as slapping her upon first seeing her in the publishing headquarters. Then, once Chang-sook returns to Bong-wan and wants her job back, Bong-wan is put in a difficult position: He must fire Areum on the first day of her job. It all blows up in a scene between Chang-sook, Areum, and Bong-wan in the office. Seated across from each other, Hong simply pans back and forth between Chang-sook and Areum, the scene ending with Bong-wan crying in the background behind Chang-sook.
In a temporal ellipsis, Areum returns to the publisher. Then, in a long twelve-minute take, they chat in the office. They’ve been talking for half of it before he finally realizes who she is. For her part, Areum remarks on how Bong-wan is different. “Your face seems to have changed. You look more comfortable.” No longer messing around, the former fool tells her that he has given up his life for his daughter (who is never seen in the film).
Characters tell other characters about their changes in appearance in Beach and The Day After. They notice something slightly different about their physiognomy. When Bong-wan’s wife confronts him at the beginning of the film, she can tell that he’s been acting strange lately. “Your face, it’s different from before,” she observes. In Beach, Young-hee’s friends remark positively on her presence. “You look more mature,” one says while finding her outside the movie theater. “A bit older — like a woman now,” he adds. “You’ve developed a real charm,” another says, going on to elaborate to the friends gathered around that “the emotional struggle has changed something inside her.”
Thus in Hong’s world, characters change in the eyes of others. By remarking upon the others’ personality, they make a futile attempt at pegging and containing the ever-evolving presence of others. Young-hee’s friends attempt to hem her in by giving her complementary observations on her changed appearance and character. In The Day After, although Bong-wan is the main character, Areum is the obscure object of desire. Bong-wan’s wife lashes out at her, mistaking her for another person. As for Bong-wan, he has creeping lust for Areum, which he tries to dispel by firing her once Chang-sook returns. Bong-wan doesn’t even remember her when she returns at the end of the film. In the end, all the characters misread her.
Such oblique readings of vacillating characters are part and parcel with Hong’s aesthetic framework, one that’s based on motion, whether it’s in the temporal flux of the narrative, the mood swings, or the camera movements used in a long take. What makes Hong richly enigmatic is that he doesn’t signpost these fluctuations. There are shifts, but Hong doesn’t point them out. Although rigorously in control, it always looks as if he just lets the flux happen.