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February 28 - March 7

Play It As It Lays: The Films of Hong Sangsoo

The 1990s witnessed a significant wave of Korean films at international film festivals and on US screens. Among the historical epics, period pieces and genre blockbusters came a series of small films, made with then-little-known actors for modest budgets, by Hong Sangsoo. These films are slices of life that seem to meander until they suddenly reveal connections between characters, or introduce uncanny parallels or repetitions that force us to reconsider what we have seen.

Of all the South Korean filmmakers to emerge over the past fifteen years, Hong Sangsoo is the closest to what Americans think of as an independent filmmaker. Born in Seoul in 1960, Hong studied filmmaking at Chungang University and subsequently earned degrees from both California College of the Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago before returning to South Korea to teach screenwriting while launching his filmmaking career. Since his first film, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, his work has attracted acclaim both in South Korea and internationally. He has averaged almost a film a year since, a prolific pace that recalls the work of the filmmakers of the French New Wave, who developed a visual and a narrative style that would allow them to work quickly and inexpensively, as independents.

In their exploration of contemporary urban alienation amid a constellation of characters, Hong’s work from the late 1990s bears a certain resemblance to the films of the Taiwanese New Cinema by Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. More recently, however, wit and comedy have come to the fore in Hong’s films, and his focus on artists and intellectuals and their hapless attempts at love and/or sex more closely resemble the work of Eric Rohmer. Despite the retreat from sociological observation towards elegant or eccentric experiments with narrative form, Hong’s films remain rife with keenly observed details about life in contemporary South Korea and its karaoke bars, strip-joints, love-motels, apartments, office spaces, pharmacies.

Hong favors an episodic approach to narrative; most of his films break into two or three large parts, or a string of chapters whose temporal relations are often ambiguous and whose progression is typically marked by a subtle shifting of the cast of characters and mood. Typically the cast of characters will shift slightly between the sections, as will the film’s tone. While not always comedic, Hong’s films are consistently witty, animated by an off-beat humor that recalls Rohmer with its sustained ambiguity over whether events onscreen are funny or sad.

Ultimately what distinguishes Hong’s films is a sense of play. The films’ narratives play on the ambiguity between the random and the seemingly orderly. Hong consistently plays with framing: besides his recent frequent use of zooms, his scripts often shift from one point-of-view or story to another. Hong’s project could perhaps be characterized as a merging of narrative cinema’s ambitions to depict social life with all its complexity, on the one hand, and the modernist delight in experimenting and playing with formal elements. Hong’s subtlety in introducing this modern element into his films is a hallmark of his elegant wit.

The HFA is pleased to welcome Hong Sangsoo to Harvard as part of this retrospective covering all periods of his career to date.

This program is co-presented with the Korea Institute, Harvard University. Special thanks: Susan Laurence, Dmitry Mironenko—Korea Institute; Yura Kwon, Oya Jeong—Finecut Co., Ltd.; Hawon Kim—Korean Film Council; Sungji Oh—Korean Film Archive.


Friday January 28 at 7pm

The Power of Kangwon Province (Kangwon-do ui him)

Directed by Hong Sangsoo.
With Baek Jong-hak, Oh Yun-hong, Im Sunyoung
South Korea 1998, 35mm, color, 110 min. Korean with English subtitles.

The Power of Kangwon Province traces, one after the other, the trajectories of a man and a woman traveling separately through the mountainous eastern province of South Korea known as Kangwon. Both have left Seoul for the weekend to get some perspective on their lives and to assuage a common sense of loss and loneliness. As they wander, the pair just misses crossing paths with each other. Their separate encounters, however, reveal to the spectator links between the two drifting characters. This resonant work firmly announces Hong’s fascination with chance, the tenuousness of connection and the ability of narrative cinema to orchestrate the two.

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Friday January 28 at 9:15pm

Hahaha

Directed by Hong Sangsoo.
South Korea 2010, 35mm, color, 116 min. Korean with English subtitles

The first of two films released by Hong in 2010, Hahaha won first prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, over films by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Jia Zhangke. (The jury president was Claire Denis, an avowed Hong fan.) Two friends meet over drinks and recount stories of their separate visits to the same beach town and the amorous adventures enjoyed there. The spectator realizes (even if the friends don’t) that the stories overlap and intersect. Beneath the film’s gently summery comedy (its title is a pun: Hahaha is Summersummersummer in Korean), Hong is up to some serious play with point of view in narrative and the way that an unknowing storyteller can reveal more of himself than he thinks.

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Sunday January 30 at 7pm

The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (Daijiga umule pajinnal)

Directed by Hong Sangsoo.
With Kim Yui-seong, Cho Eun-sook, Park Jin-seong
South Korea 1996, 35mm, color, 115 min. Korean with English subtitles

 

Hong made his feature film debut just as South Korean cinema began to occupy a more prominent place internationally in the 1990s. But while many of the most celebrated films were either national epics, period pieces, political looks at South Korea’s recent history or genre blockbusters, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well offered a tale of urban anomie more reminiscent of the Taiwan or Hong Kong new waves of the previous decade. Hong has said that the screenplay began when he assigned four students to write a short script based on a day in the life of a character of their choice; Hong then took these four scripts and wove them together, with a separate chapter for each of the film’s characters. The resulting tale of infidelity and unrequited love in contemporary Seoul is one of Hong’s most austere, bracing and arguably richest in social detail.

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Monday January 31 at 7pm

Tale of Cinema (Geuk Jang Jeon)

Directed by Hong Sangsoo.
With Bang Joong-hyeon, Bang Moonsu, Choi Bo-kwang
South Korea 2005, 35mm, color, 89 min. Korean with English subtitles

Tale of Cinema is an important film in Hong’s oeuvre, marking the debut of many elements now recognized as signatures of his distinct style: the active zoom shot, the setting in the world of filmmaking, and the theme of the anxiety of influence, an important elaboration of Hong’s overarching comedy of failure. The film breaks into two parts, an opening half depicting an obsessive love story among unhappy youth and set against a backdrop of intergenerational conflict. The second part shifts focus to someone who has been a spectator of the events of the first part and the way that he misapplies the lessons he thinks he’s learned from his voyeuristic experience to his own life. The interplay between the two halves reveals the rift that Hong often tries to reconcile in his films: the depiction of lived existence on the one hand, and the aesthetic experimentation with visual and narrative form on the other.

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Special Event Tickets $12
Friday February 4 at 7pm

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Oh! Soo-jung)

Directed by Hong Sangsoo, Appearing in Person
With Lee Eun-ju, Mun Seong-kun, Jeong Bo-seok
South Korea 2000, 35mm, b/w, 126 min. Korean with English subtitles

Virgin Stripped Bare… is Hong’s most startlingly and openly modernist film, its English-language title derived from Duchamp and its crisp widescreen black-and-white cinematography and its disjointed tale of a love triangle recalling 1960s French cinema, especially Resnais. The film is divided into a series of chapters that alternate between the point-of-view of the woman at the apex of the triangle and that of one of her suitors. This structure gives Hong the opportunity to elaborate on some of his favorite structural elements: similar episodes seen from varying points of view, repetitions and parallels emerging from seemingly insignificant interactions. The focus on explicit and sometimes desperate sexuality common to all of Hong’s earliest films comes to the foreground here.

There will be a special reception in the lobby of the Carpenter Center following the Q&A with the director. It is free and open to the public.

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Saturday February 5 at 7pm

Oki's Movie (Ok-hu ui yeonghwa)

Directed by Hong Sangsoo, Appearing in Person
With Lee Sunkyun, Jung Yumi, Moon Sungkeun
South Korea 2010, 35mm, color, 80 min. Korean with English subtitles

Oki's Movie features Hong’s most complex play with point-of-view and narrative segmentation. The film is made up of four short films recounting the various entanglements among three main characters: a seasoned filmmaker who is now a teacher, a younger filmmaker in mid-career and a film student. The four sections, however, leave out important blocks of time and are notably not presented in chronological order. Gradually, the spectator wonders: am I watching a film made by one of the characters onscreen? Are the different segments perhaps made by separate filmmakers? Regular cinematheque filmgoers will laugh or wince—or both—at the scene featuring a post-screening Q&A with the filmmaker that goes seriously awry.

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Sunday February 6 at 7pm

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (Saenghwalui balgyeon)

Directed by Hong Sangsoo
With Kim Sangkyung, Choo Sang-mi, Ye Ji-won
South Korea 2002, 35mm, color, 115 min. Korean with English subtitles

Turning Gate follows a struggling actor from one unsatisfying romance to another. Hong’s fourth film ultimately represents something of an apotheosis of the abiding concern with sexuality prominent in his previous work. Following Virgin Stripped Bare…, Hong repeats the device of breaking his film into titled chapters, but now the chapters follow the itinerary of a central figure, a typical Hong protagonist struggling with relationships, characteristically unsympathetic, inconsistent, seemingly inconsiderate, and yet ”gifted” with a bad luck and ineptness that make him both recognizable and comic. An apex of the depiction of sexuality in Hong’s films, Turning Gate features. the most prolonged and perhaps even unsimulated sex scenes to date. Indeed, in Hong’s subsequent work the theme of sexual desperation takes a back seat, sublimated to the social comedy of mastery and impotence in social and professional settings.

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Monday February 7 at 7pm

Night and Day (Bam gua Nat)

Directed by Hong Sangsoo
With Kim Youngho, Park Eunye, Huang Sujung
South Korea 2008, 35mm, color, 144 min. Korean with English subtitles

Given that French cinema has exerted a palpable influence on Hong Sangsoo, it is not surprising that Hong directed and set a film entirely in Paris. Like Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is it There?, Night and Day focuses on the pleasures and sorrows of life in Paris as a visitor from East Asia. But this being a Hong Sangsoo film, Night and Day is also a tragicomedy about people behaving badly. Here the central figure is a man who’s fled to Paris to avoid a drug arrest, leaving his wife behind. Art and sex vie for his attention most of the time, with the two coming together in front of Courbet’s L’origine du monde at the Musée d’Orsay. As so often in Hong’s work, what begins as a gentle comedy gradually reveals a more somber side.

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