The same year Korean viewers were flocking to theaters to watch Kang Je-Gyu's 은행나무 침대 (The Gingko Bed), Kang Woo-Suk's 투캅스 2 (Two Cops 2) or Hollywood blockbusters like Independence Day or The Rock; the same year Jang Sun-Woo shocked everyone with the most emotionally devastating statement of the Gwangju Massacre in 꽃잎 (A Petal) and the same year Im Kwon-Taek and Park Chul-Soo battled in an invisible war of 'funeral festivals', with 축제 (Festival) and 학생부군신위 (Farewell, My Darling) respectively. Many interesting films were released that year, but one stood out in particular, maybe because it was from a first time director. The year was 1996, the film Hong Sang-Soo's debut, 돼지가 우물에 빠진 날 (The Day a Pig Fell into the Well). This former 'TV salaryman' moved from SBS to history, with one of the most acclaimed and eclectic films of the 90s, instantly winning him the Best New Director at the 17th Blue Dragon Awards, and even lucking out at Vancouver the same year. Ten years and six films later, Hong Sang-Soo has become one of the most acclaimed directors in Korea; even though none of his films could be considered popular, he's carved a niche for himself in a market rarely interested in small arthouse films, and his reputation overseas has been rising in the last few years.
Some argue that 여자는 남자의 미래다 (Woman is The Future of Man) and 극장전 (Tale of Cinema) are somewhat minor works for Hong, after his exploits in the late 90s, or his delicious 생활의 발견 (The Turning Gate). I tend to think his films have become a little more 'obscure' for the untrained eye -- not trained for the brutal honesty Hong uses to depict his characters' inner monsters -- and maybe a little too close to home for some to accept them in the usual, predictable 'arthouse' aesthetics. But they're full of energy and vigour, with a growing 'tongue in cheek' feeling which was only hinted at in his previous works. Hong has changed, just like his films. He's experimenting with previously unexplored techniques (the zoom in 'Tale of Cinema') but simply using them as another visual marker to focus on the characters and the story, just like the black and white photography in 오! 수정 (Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors). And after collecting lukewarm reactions at major festivals for his latest two features, polarizing views depending on whom you ask (French critics usually love him, many other Western critics were either disappointed or irritatingly indifferent), Hong is back with his seventh film, which might mark another important change in his career. If the The Turning Gate was his most commercially successful film to date, judging by the casting of his new film 해변의 연인 (The Woman on the Beach), things might change completely.
For starters, instead of the usual French/Korean co-productions Hong found home with 영화사 봄 (Bom Film Productions), the company responsible for films like 너는 내운명 (You Are My Sunshine), 달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life), 스캔들 (Untold Scandal) and 장화, 홍련 (A Tale of Two Sisters). But of course the biggest change is the use of big stars, which in the past would have been almost impossible for a low-budget film like this: we go from Kim Seung-Woo to superstar Go Hyun-Jung, from Song Sun-Mi to Kim Tae-Woo, working for the second time with Hong after Woman is the Future of Man. I don't know if it's because he recently married and had a baby with fellow actress Kim Nam-Joo, but his choices have improved tenfold since then, and it's clear he's trying to establish a more mature image. It all started with one of the big surprises of the year on TV, that 내 인생의 스페셜 (My Life's Special) which only ended up on TV for a coincidence -- thanks to the accidents on the set of 늑대 (Wolf). But then he added Kim Hae-Gon's promising 보고싶은 얼굴 (The Face I Miss) alongside Jang Jin-Young, and now this one with Hong. Gone are the days when Kim would only star in silly comedies or over the top melodramas where he'd show over and over that tearjerkers weren't his forte, and frankly it's nice to see him try new things. As for Song Sun-Mi, I noticed quite an improvement on TV over the last two years, first in Kim Soo-Hyun's 부모님 전상서 (My Precious Family) and lately even in the Friday Drama 어느날, 갑자기 (One Day, Suddenly), acting alongside Sung Hyun-Ah.
But of course the biggest name is Go Hyun-Jung, who returned to showbiz after a 10 year absence, following her divorce with a tycoon. Go, who became a huge star with 1995's 모래시계 (The Sandglass), came back with last year's SBS Drama 봄날 (Spring Days), with an hefty price tag of 20 Million Won per episode, so it's pretty obvious she and Kim Seung-Woo took a big paycut to star in this film. But it's that challenge acting in an Hong Sang-Soo film poses, that chance to test your skills, broaden the spectrum, gain some credibility in the eyes of people who carry the ball in Chungmuro. Maybe that's the reason why Hong changes his 'muse' with every new film: from Bang Eun-Hee in The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well) to Oh Yoon-Hong in 강원도의 힘 (The Power of Kangwon Province), from the late Lee Eun-Joo in Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors to Ye Ji-Won and Chu Sang-Mi in The Turning Gate. Finally, from Sung Hyun-Ah in Woman is The Future of Man to Eom Ji-Won in Tale of Cinema. Although the former two followed different paths, if you look at the latter four, you'll notice a pattern: they were all actresses with an image to shed, respect to gain, and in severe need of a project capable of testing their skills. So here comes Hong, with his brutal honesty, his layers upon layers of 사람냄새 (smell of people), soju, sex, embarrassing moments and all the elements which make a Hong Sang-Soo film unique.
So that's the surprise really, seeing a 'star' with a certain image like Go work with Hong means she's trying to upgrade her acting. But just like the focus of most of the questions from the press seemed to be about 'that', she seemed to understand working with Hong means reaching a maturation not only in terms of character, but in the way you portray that character -- which in certain cases might lead to that dreaded (by actresses, loved by the press) word, 노출: exposure, nudity. The issue shouldn't even be raised, but in a business where the press look for that element like hyenas smelling blood, nudity can change an actress' career in many ways. I don't need to bring up examples like Jeon Do-Yeon in 해피엔드 (Happy End) and Kim Hye-Soo in 얼굴없는 미녀 (Hypnotized) to show it's not simply about taking off your clothes, but in completely immersing yourself in the character, even at the cost of abandoning your 'Candy' image, and lose a few CF contracts as a result. Actresses like Bae Doo-Na and Kang Hye-Jung seemed to understand that concept from the beginning, but there were some, just like Eom Ji-Won with Hong's last film, that eventually understood sooner or later that's something actresses and actors alike have to go through (in various degrees, obviously), and there's no need to mount a case about it. So, in a way, this shows Go is open to making a maturation in that sense, which perhaps will bring her to open herself in more important things (like in displaying true sentiments and not just doing the usual Drama Queen routines, emoting as close as possible to reality, like great actresses do).
Go stars as Kim Moon-Sook, a singer-songwriter in her early 30s, who after majoring in film music and even studying in Germany is now 'enjoying' her life as a 백수 (slang for unemployed). She's often daydreaming, likes to fall into trips with her imagination and is a free spirited romantic. Kim Seung-Woo plays a once promising director, who is now facing her same problems, spending his days without a clear direction in life. They leave for a trip, to enjoy one night together on that famous beach. They'll meet Song Sun-Mi's character, a fastfood joint owner, and Kim Tae-Woo plays Art Director Won Chang-Wook. Of course as Hong writes most of the script on the set a la Wong Kar-Wai it's impossible to predict where things will go, although it does sound like a mix of road movie tropes, Hong's unique touch and the kind of adult (as in mature, not erotic, although there will obviously sex. It's a Hong Sang-Soo film!) romantic dramas someone like Kim Eung-Soo of 욕망 (Desire) would direct. Still, until this baby is over, it will be hard to guess what it's about, as even the actors didn't receive a single page of dialogue, and just agreed based on the director's name and a very basic outline. Hong's seventh film, The Woman on the Beach had its presentation today at the Walker Hill Hotel in Gwangjang-Dong, with director Hong Sang-Soo, Bom Film's Oh Jung-Wan and the four leads answering questions. The film will start shooting in the next few weeks, for a September release.
"Go Hyun-Jung has always been someone I wanted to work with, and when I met her, I've never been bored even once. She really made a good first impression, talking slowly and with a relaxed tone. Watching her act on TV, I always thought she was a great actress, balancing subtlety with a great finishing stroke. I promised President Oh that I'd try my best to faithfully represent the kind of feelings people can relate to, using my experiences and those of the actors."
"I think this will be the closest Hong Sang-Soo gets to a commercial film, but all considered, all the four actors had to make a financial sacrifice to star in this film. I don't know why Director Hong and I found so much luck with this project, as casting four actors like these without them making a few sacrifices in regards to money would have been impossible. Since we don't want to create problems in their future projects, we chose not to reveal the extent of those 'sacrifices', but they're incredible. Deciding to work with Hong was as difficult as wrapping up ten projects, but I also thought of it as a challenge I had to take, to finally allow a director like Hong to enjoy a little more visibility for his films. I'll play that bridge between the audience and Hong, so to speak."
"Since this is my first experience in films, I don't really know much about this, but one thing I know is that I feel a little scared by it all. I just hope people will support and accept my decision. In a way, I feel like becoming an adult with this film, with many conflicting feelings working together mixed with the sudden excitement of this new challenge. Of course if I was dealing with a new director, I would have never accepted without even taking a look at the script, but thanks to the kind of world Hong has shown in his past works, it was an easy decision. Of course I'm scared about the possibility of shooting nude scenes. I do have a desire not to completely change my image, and I know there's probably many fans who wouldn't like that. But I'll try my best to do what Hong asks me, even if I might not completely like the idea. If it fits with the character, then it's my responsibility to do so, even if it involves sex scenes. I don't even know much about the character, as we haven't shot a single scene yet."
"Bed scenes? What bed scenes. We don't do it on a bed, so what are you people talking about (laughs)? Watching Go Hyun-Jung act on TV, sometimes I'd wonder if I'd ever get the chance to act with her, but then this chance came, and I'm really happy. Just like the others, I didn't really know much about the character, but since it's a Hong Sang-Soo film, I accepted the role without hesitation.