Hong Sang-soo has a t-shirt. As reported by the seemingly omniscient Hong Sang-soo Web Twitter account, the 2016 Locarno Film Festival featured some sartorial branding inspired by last year’s top-prize recipient. If you were lucky enough to spend your August in a palatial Swiss town and decided that nothing said “European Summer” like shuffling between darkened movie theaters, you might have been lucky enough to snatch up one of the shirts, fittingly adorned with a tipsy sketch by the Korean master scrawled above the Hongian pseudo-motto: “Infinite Worlds Possible.” And just like that, with a major European festival prize now under his belt and branded UNIQLO-lite duds, it seems Hong has officially become an event.
Of course, we’re talking about the niche of the niche here. 18 films into his career Hong’s audience has grown more than some of the long-time loyalists likely thought possible, though he’s not exactly setting the box office ablaze. The yearly anticipation for his new film feels a bit more communal than it once did, still rolling around with the same regularity but with greater pomp among the ever-important Film Twitter cognoscenti. What self-respecting cine-kid doesn’t want a Hong shirt this time of year? It’s festival season. It’s Hong time. And right on cue, we got a trailer.
A man and a woman sit on a bed in the middle distance, her hands cover her face in apparent shame or frustration while he looks on exasperated. Their postures and the rumpled bedspread suggest pre/post-coital hard-talk or maybe the flailings of a drunken confession, or very possibly both. She pulls her hands away and suddenly a bleary digital zoom to her face. “I didn’t drink and I didn’t break my promise” she says. Within 15 seconds we’re fully in Hong’s world of intoxicants, bad sex, and his favorite verboten stylistic touch, the zoom. But it’s noticeably off here, different than before. The mechanics have suddenly changed.
Since 2005’s Tale of Cinema, Hong has punctuated, in thrillingly unpredictable fashion, his master shots with these strange push-ins. But until this week he relied entirely on the classic parfocal lens to achieve his effect, the link between the materiality of camera and the action of the shot inseparable. The jarring shift to digital movement, created by blowing up the image in post rather than changing the camera’s focal length on set, replicates the experience of festival-goers who, in 2005, found Hong’s slow cinema rhythms suddenly ripped apart by the jazzy staccato beats of the zooms. It remains to be seen if Hong has definitively shifted his style again. But it almost doesn’t matter. It takes a rare kind of consistency to make minor aesthetic tremors feel like earthquakes.
But it takes more than mere consistency to turn a problem of mechanics into an question of aesthetics. The initial digital zoom rewrites the inherited Hongian code. 13 films after his stylistic overhaul, Hong asks us to relearn how we watch his movies in micro. The freeze frame that follows the rapid push-in underlines this break. A pause to re-acclimate.
Hong holds over the smeared pixels for a few more lines of dialogue (about drinking, natch) before cutting to the earlier two-shot. Almost immediately the first word of the title punctuates the shot, “Yourself,” followed by another arrhythmic, comically rushed zoom. “and Yours.” By now, this Hong true-believer was in stitches. Another cut back and again the same streaking forward. “Written and directed by Hong Sang-soo.” Could it be anyone else?
This isn’t the first time Hong has re-purposed the commercial requirements of the trailer to his own idiosyncratic ends. The preview for last year’s Right Now, Wrong Then featured a similarly audacious structural conceit: a key dialogue scene subtly played backwards, the snow falling upwards the first clue that time is flowing out of order. It’s an expertly deployed joke in and of itself. But then the punchline: Each garbled line spoken by the leads is subtitled as a variation on the title, like some kind of Hongian mad libs. What’s remarkable, aside from the utter casualness of the wit, is Hong’s ability to put marketing material into genuine dialogue with the film itself. In tandem with the bifurcated structure of the finished product, the trailer suggests an even greater number of forking paths not taken, an infinite series of possible movies running simultaneously.
Hong employed reverse playback once before, in the trailer for 2011’s The Day He Arrives. The snow falls up again as Hong’s protagonists pile out of a cab and onto the street where their boozy night just ended. The trailer mirrors the film’s ouroboros time loop, suggesting somehow another tangle in The Day He Arrives’s knotted chronology. And although the wintry monochrome is swapped out for color, the world is just as chilled by the blue hues of endless, harsh mornings-after. Like a distress signal from a parallel reality, but you know…funny.
Now, to return to the shirt: the pithy description of Hong’s cinema now enshrined in 90% cotton (“Infinite Worlds Possible”) first appeared in Cinema Scope magazine last year, in a surprisingly in-depth interview with the typically tight-lipped director. At one point, Hong pulled out a pen to sketch a diagram of the ur-structure of his films, which is of course the very same that Locarno literally refashioned for this year’s promotional material. Hong’s concision is such that his entire universe is mappable on a bar napkin or in the span of a trailer which, like the sketches and, yes, the t-shirt, testify to the totality of Hong’s art, its quantum smallness and cosmic largeness. And with each new film it seems to expand ever inward and outward. It’s increasingly Hong Sang-soo’s world, we’re just living in it.