“Some things I come across in every day life sparks curiosity in me. My films are a way for me to unravel these things. […] I start with a very ordinary, banal situation, and this situation usually has something in it that makes me feel strongly. It’s a stereotypical feeling, but very strong. I have this desire to look at it… Perhaps it’s a blind feeling. I put it on the table, and I look at it. I open up, and these pieces surface. They are not related, they conflict with each other. But I try to find a pattern that makes all these pieces fit into one. […] You’re stuck with a certain view for your entire life and only once in a while, you see things differently. I think that’s a great thing. That’s what I try to do.” – Hong Sang-soo
“Let nothing be changed and all be different.” Of all the precepts that Robert Bresson has collected in his Notes on the Cinematograph, this riff on an often quoted historical maxim might be the one that is par excellence applicable to the films of Hong Sang-soo. Since discovering Bresson’s work triggered him to patiently carve out his own singular path through the world of cinema, the South-Korean filmmaker has continued to weave an ever subtly changing canvas of minute variations on the same narrative threads, playfully entwining themes of love, desire, deception and regret.
In Hong’s bittersweet sonatas, typically composed of multiple movements, repeated figures and modulating motives, any relationship or situation is susceptible to variability: there can always be another version, another chance, another time. Some situations present themselves as repetitions, while others accommodate a myriad of storylines that intertwine or parallel each other. Every film contains multiple stories, and is also rich in virtual ones, some yet to be told, others perhaps already told before. Yet for all the doubling, folding and mirroring in Hong’s films, what stands out from their narrative playfulness is hardly a display of virtuosity, but rather, as Jacques Aumont reminds us, a sense of “idiocy.” This idiocy does not only refer to the innocuous array of trite misunderstandings, misfortunes and missteps that detract characters along divergent or crossing paths, but above all to the sense that everything seems to happen without reason, without a causal or rational order that determines the relations between characters and their environment, between their present and their future. In Hong’s films, there is no particular reason why things couldn’t fall into place differently: every relation entails a multiplicity of relations.
From his feature debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996) to The Day After (2017), the latest of four films he has released in the past year, Hong Sang-soo has continuously reinvented his explorations of the very arbitrariness and contingency of life’s connections and directions by crafting his own take on another one of Bresson’s precepts: to find without seeking. While the production of his first films was still based on a predefined screenplay, Hong has increasingly refined his working method into a both intuitive and rigorous process of writing and filming. On the morning of each shooting day, he writes out dialogue for the scenes he intends to shoot, gives his cast time to memorize their lines, determines camera angles, and then starts to shoot – most often using statically framed long takes which are only occasionally interrupted by abrupt zooms. The absence of a prefixed template and a receptivity to what transiently comes into view allows for an unravelling of the concrete everyday into unexpected patterns of visual and narrative features, opening up even the most trivial gestures and insignificant details to a web of indefinite resonances.
Stemming from a wariness of generalizations that claim to be transcendent and all-encompassing, this constant interplay between concrete presence – of the people involved and the environments they occupy – and abstract construction is what, more than anything, propels Hong Sang-soo’s singular cinematic investigations into the dynamics of repetition and difference. It might also be what brings his work, film after film, ever closer to the art of cinema as it was once devised by Bresson: as a method of discovery.
HONG SANG-SOO RETROSPECTIVE
& CARTE BLANCHE
18.01 > 25.02.2018
An initiative of Cinematek and Courtisane, in collaboration with the Korean Cultural Center in Brussels, Sabzian & Cinea. In the presence of Hong Sang-soo on 18>20.01.
On the occassion of this retrospective, Sabzian, Courtisane and Cinematek have collected a series of new and newly translated articles and interviews in a modest small-edition publication.