Between Work: A Conversation on Claire’s Camera and The Day After

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Evan Morgan: The sun’s out, palm trees are in sight, and we’ve temporarily traded in soju for sancerre. Hong Sang-soo is en vacance again. I don’t know about you Sean, but I’m always happy to see Hong in the literally and figuratively breezy mode that he takes up in Claire’s Camera. The seasons have long played a central role in the Hong project, though it seems that the tonal vacillation between his summer and winter films grows with each passing year. Hong’s sense of humor lilts along during the warmer months, and though it never goes entirely dormant in wintertime, it cools and takes on a serrated edge, like cracked ice. Claire’s Camera, in keeping with this seasonal dichotomy, might be his most amiable movie yet, defined as it is by Isabelle Huppert’s warm naiveté and the dabs of sunflower yellow provided her summer frock. Huppert’s flightiness bleeds into the plotting too, which moves with a nonchalance that borders on amateurishness. I mean that as a compliment. It strikes me that Hong’s acceptance into the upper echelon of the art cinema world (the film unfolds during Cannes, after all) occurred simultaneously with his loosened production methods, and though the competition gatekeepers prefer the more somber Seoul films, the animating spirit of later Hong owes much to the laidback atmosphere of friends who vacation together and decide, ‘what the hell let’s make a movie.’ It’s not for nothing that this most amateur of Hong films is set against the backdrop of the world’s premier film festival.

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Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangsoo, 2016)

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Yourself and Yours isn’t the latest film from South Korean director Hong Sangsoo, that would be On the Beach at Night Alone, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Berlin Film Festival (where it picked up a Best Actress award) and which Evan wrote about here last week (Evan has also written here about both Yourself and Yours and its trailer). Yourself and Yours may still come to Seattle Screens, Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then played here last summer, almost a year after its festival premiere in 2015. It’s probable that if it does, it won’t be until after another new Hong movie plays the Cannes Film Festival, as his Claire’s Camera is rumored to be finished by that time. With a director this prolific (since taking a year off in 2007, Hong has directed thirteen feature films in ten years) it’s easy for a film here or there to get lost in the mix, especially given the lethargic pace at which films today move from the festival circuit to the theatrical art house. The system simply isn’t designed, at present, for a director who releases a new film every nine months. This isn’t unique to Hong (the similarly prolific Johnnie To has had equally haphazard distribution) nor is it unique to the present (take a look sometime at the distribution schedule of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960s period). But don’t let these institutional vagaries obscure the fact that Hong is in the midst of one of the great cinematic winning streaks, a frenetic burst of creative energy that comes along only a few times in a generation. And Yourself and Yours, seemingly already forgotten though it premiered just six months ago, epitomizes the greatness of that streak as well as anything.

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VIFF 2016: Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, 2016)


A comedy of remarriage as only Hong Sang-soo could imagine it, Yourself and Yours rearranges the familiar building blocks of social anxiety, sex, and—most of all—soju to tell the story of one couple’s breakup and reunion. Or, given that this is Hong’s protean world, perhaps it’s not a reunion at all but a new couple, newly formed. Key to this Hongian puzzlebox is Minjung, a young woman with a well-known love of drink recently sworn off the sauce at the behest of her boyfriend. Rumors of soju recitivism split the couple up and Minjung encounters two different men who profess to know her from the past. Minjung, for her part, claims no memory of them, offering up a suspicious twin sister look-a-like story or blank stares in response. The exact nature of these  misidentifications forms the film’s core mystery. It’s certainly possible that Minjung’s penchant for drink has obliterated these men from her mind, though it’s equally plausible that the self is an infinitely branching set of traits, often repeated and therefore identifiable, but always shifting emphasis, shape, and order, so also essentially unstable. Sounds like Hong’s movies.

Unlike his other recent features, Yourself and Yours offers no structural blueprint at the outset. Hill of Freedom‘s jumbled letters explain that film’s disorganized narration and Right Now, Wrong Then‘s initial title card (the inverted Wrong Then, Right Now) clues the attentive Hong viewer into the game being played. The dissipated dreaminess that governs Nobody’s Daughter Haewon comes closest, but with a crucial difference: Minjung does not appear to be dreaming. None of the strange happenings emanate from her consciousness. If anything, the unblinking earnestness of actress You-Young Lee’s performance ensures that Minjung remains a fixed point, no matter the cognitive dissonance she inflicts on the men around her. She is a mystery to others but never to herself.

That self-assurance allows Minjung to act the Hongian sage, the one character with sufficient wisdom to proffer extra-filmic advice: “Knowing is not as important as we think.” Perhaps that’s the only explanation for this hall of mirrors, though if this is a Stanley Cavellian comedy, as the final moments suggest, it’s one that takes his idea of transformation literally: “I am changed before your eyes, different so to speak from myself, hence not different. To see this you will have to correspondingly suffer metamorphosis.” Is Minjung’s mutable personhood just a screwball game to win back her lover, to make him transform? He can’t deny his partner’s true self (I drink therefore I am) and expect to keep her. So she wins. Is her victory a consequence of drunken forgetfulness, a spatiotemporal rupture, farcical roleplay? The beauty of Hong’s cinema lies in never having to choose.

The Age of Shadows (Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

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Hot off its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and the announcement of its being chosen as South Korea’s submission for the Foreign Language Academy Award, the latest film from director Kim Jee-woon (The Good, The Bad, The WeirdI Saw the Devil) opened this past Friday. But not in Seattle: it’s only playing at the Alderwood Mall AMC in Lynnwood and the Cinemark theatre in Federal Way, another example of the mixed-blessing that is the state of Asian film distribution in the United States. On the one hand, were this exact same film French or German, you could expect it to be picked up by one of the major art house distributors and get a nationwide roll-out, eventually playing somewhere like SIFF or a Landmark theatre. Along with that would go critical attention and a much wider audience. Instead, as Korean, Chinese, Filipino and Indian films are increasingly only released in the US in small runs targeted at diasporic and immigrant communities, with no advance publicity and little advertising to the public at large, it’s likely that if The Age of Shadows does develop an American following, it will come only once the movie is widely available to stream on the internet. But on the plus side, for those of us that happen to live near a major urban center, we get to see some of the best movies in the world in a theatrical setting, with no waiting.

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Yourself and Yours (Trailer) (Hong Sangsoo, 2016)

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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.

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Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo, 2015)

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The following is a slightly modified reprint of my review from last fall’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

The Hong Sangsoo film is a perennial highlight of every VIFF (I’ve seen Like You Know it All, Oki’s Movie, Hahaha, In Another Country, Our Sunhi and Hill of Freedomhere over the years) and Right Now, Wrong Then is no disappointment. It’s a very good film, while lacking the formal experimentation that distinguishes his best work (Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives) or the sheer giddy pleasure of his funniest movies (Hill of Freedom, In Another Country), it has a precision and focus that assures that, despite a certain conventionality, it will become one of his more popular features (note: This has turned out to be accurate, the film has garnered Hong some of the best reviews and one of the widest releases of his career so far). Split evenly in two halves, it follows a film director, in town for a festival showing and Q & A, as he wanders about a tourist site where he meets a young woman. They talk, drink soju, make awkward approaches at romance and ultimately split when the director is proven to be a dishonest, womanizing lout. Then the film resets, complete with a new title card (the first half is “Right Then, Wrong Now”, the second “Right Now, Wrong Then”) and we replay the same day but with significant differences. The director in this version is honest and open (perhaps to a fault, as when a drunken overheating compels him to strip naked in front of his companions). Hong significantly varies his camera setups in the second section, creating more balanced compositions where in the first half the setups tended to privilege the director’s perspective (including a Hong rarity: an actual POV shot). It’s a mature film, relaxed and confident with a simple truth to tell. But underlying it all is a palpable loneliness. It’s played as sadness, as tragedy in the first half, where the director’s faults lead to failure and angry isolation. In the second half, it’s a wistful melancholy, where people can find happiness in connecting with an other, with the full knowledge that any such connection is necessarily temporary. It’s a quiet and sweet film, a warm room on a cold night, and vice versa.

The Frances Farmer Show #7: SIFF 2016 Midpoint Report

Almost halfway through the marathon that is the Seattle International Film Festival, we take a break to talk about some of the films we’ve seen so far. Movies discussed include: Chimes at Midnight, Sunset Song, Love & Friendship, Long Way North, Our Little Sister, Alone, The Island Funeral, Concerto, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, Cameraperson, Women He’s Undressed, In a Valley of Violence, The Final Master, Lo and Behold, The Lure, Tiny, The Seasons in Quincy and Scandal in Paris.

You can listen to the show by downloading it directly, or by subscribing on iTunes or the podcast player of your choice.

Some corrections:

The woman in The Island Funeral takes a trip with her brother, not her sister.
The Seasons in Quincy starts in the winter and ends in the autumn, not summer, because that’s how seasons work.

SIFF 2016: Alone (Park Hong-min, 2015)

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The Korean psychological thriller Alone begins with an enticing update on Rear Window. On a rooftop across the street from his apartment, a photographer named Su-min witnesses a woman being attacked by three masked men. He snaps a few shots of the crime but betrays his presence to the perpetrators, who come rushing off the roof and toward his building. Su-min tries to hide but the men soon find him and just as they are about to bash in his head with a hammer, the camera cuts and he wakes up naked in the alleyways that surround his apartment.

At this point–and all the way to its conclusion an interminable 90 minutes later–these labyrinthine alleyways act as purgatory for Su-min. He bumps into his ex-girlfriend and they get into an argument, he finds a childhood facsimile of himself, who brandishes a kitchen knife which he literally uses to kill his father. Each time a scene reaches a traumatic crescendo, Su-min wakes up again, back at the beginning of the alley, before stumbling off into another dream. Or is it memory?

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