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The Korean Hal Hartley: “Whatever can be defined, it is bullshit.”

Upon moving to Los Angeles, I made it a priority to visit the Korean Cultural Center, a combined museum, screening room, language school, and library of Korea-related materials. I’ll start taking classes there next year, but I didn’t want to wait to get a library card. I first checked out Huh Moonyung’s Hong Sangsoo, the entry in Seoul Selection’s “Korean Film Directors” series on my favorite Korean filmmaker of them all.

To people who haven’t heard of him — and in the States, many of remain, even among cinephiles — I describe Hong as “the Korean Hal Hartley.” Often, this doesn’t clarify much, but despite struggling to share my enthusiasm, I find myself drawn more and more frequently to his worldview and the way he structures and aestheticizes it through cinema. I’ve picked quotes from the interview with Hong that makes up the book’s middle that best give you an idea of how he thinks and creates (bolding mine):

  • “During the process of meeting actors, they remind me of the people that I have known in the past and the fragments of events I have experienced with them. Everything that I encounter during filming can stimulate me. For example, I could remember a past event while listening to a conversation of crew members the night before, or the weather at the location that day could stimulate me somehow. Everything that surrounds me could potentially stimulate me as the starting point for the details of what I need to film that day. That is the reason why I [write the script] the morning of the shoot.”
  • I believe that my films are not made to express a story, but to feature some fragments. I don’t think I have any other option. I take those so-called fragments and, with them, derive a whole structure centered on everyday situations. And within that structure, I select appropriate rhetoric. And when I go into the shoot, a new process of discovery begins.”
  • “My drawing teacher in college wrote in my recommendation letter I had a strange sense of humor. That was the first time I heard of it. I find it fortunate that my wife laughs at my jokes from time to time. If one looks at each slice of life without being so self-centered, so impulsive, so purpose-driven, then the arrangement of those familiar slices will escape from being clichés and even become the basis of strange humor.”
  • “I want fragments first to be picked up and then for them to form a movie. I want to make one body that can hold all pieces even though they seem contradictory or unrelated to each other. For me, making a movie is about what I choose and how I arrange them.”
  • “I went through puberty clinging onto ideals such as absolute truth, perfect world, absolute purity, etc. Everything I had encountered in life was automatically compared against an ideal value. I failed to comprehend things in life that couldn’t be incorporated into that ideal system. So, my life became fraught with schizophrenia asking why reality cannot easily converge with these beautiful ideals. Only when I reached my 20s did I fortunately begin to see the falsehood behind those ideals and began to better appreciate life, that is, as it is. Characters in my movies reflect such experiences. Specific characters chase after clichéd ideals, or even get chased by them, but I want my gaze on these characters to be composed from visions that are free from these clichés. To those characters, the conflict between ideals and life that veer away from these ideals is very painful. I want to say that all these pains are actually unnecessary. It’s the ideals that are the essence of the problem, not life itself.”
  • “I welcome strange coincidences and think that they are like a wedge driven into the frame of a banal and conventional mind.”
  • “I don’t feel disappointed [with poor reception] as long as there is a dialogue between the audience and me.”
  • “I had thought providing a simplified monotonous background [in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors] would make it easier for the audience to visualize the contrasting contents better. But I think it may have been just a theoretical calculation. What’s more important is that I wanted to feature wintertime Seoul in black and white.”
  • “I think I was lazy my whole life. I would procrastinate as much as I can. At the last moment, when I can no longer procrastinate, some spontaneous thing happens in my actions. I always liked that.”
  • “I am cautious about the strong image that I have decided in my head in advance. They are mostly the result of a desire to reconstruct an image that I have seen from watching other people’s works.”
  • “There are men who feel that only with women can they feel an absolute sense of connection. I think it’s a good experience to go through that absolute kind of connectivity, be it one hour or a year. However, that very subjective experience may not be enough considering that our lifespan is longer than one hour or a year. The rest of time is too long. And so they fall in front of women continuously. But men haven’t defined what life is. Maybe it’s because whatever can be defined, it is bullshit. That’s why there can’t be a contract or a rule needed for minimal decency promised to women. That’s why it is difficult for women to begin a relationship with men with whom she can place a minimal amount of trust. A woman knows that she is getting tired, but she holds onto a relationship until she can trust. Men embrace women thinking that she is the only savior, but are nervous because they can already visualize the end even with their eyes closed.”
  • I don’t have hobbies, but I do drink some.”

At the moment, I find Turning Gate, Night and Day, and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (about which I wrote a Humanists column) Hong’s funniest and richest pictures. But if you’re in the Anglosphere, you’ll have an easier time finding Woman is the Future of Man, The Power of Kangwon Provice, and Woman on the Beach.

Trailers usually make me less interested in films, not more, but this one promoting Hong’s latest, The Day He Arrives, strongly suggests that someone at TrailerCo’s doing their job at last:

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