Mythologist Joseph Campbell was fond of saying that people mistakenly seek the meaning of life when what they actually want is the experience of life. That keen insight could be applied in appreciating the films of Hong Sang-soo. Because of his thematic consistency from film to film, there's a temptation to draw ready equations. The erotic triangulations mean this. The substitutions and interchangeability of characters mean this. The repetitions mean this. But after listening to Director Hong quietly counter all equations at his two public appearances during this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and spending an animated evening drinking soju with him, I've come to recognize the folly of trying to be either too cognitive or too literal with a filmmaker whose films are essentially emotional meditations on what is bathetic and mundane in everyday human relationships. One gets the sense that Director Hong simply wants to accept and present relationships as they are and not get too distracted in what they might mean. The meaning will vary at any rate by what the viewer sees in the situations.
That's not to say that Director Hong doesn't welcome interpretation. When films are as emotionally honest and open as his films are, they're like empty canvases that invite expressive brush strokes; i.e., words. Case in point: over dinner I asked Director Hong what he thought about Chuck Stephens' suggestion that his films slyly present tensions between North and South Korea and Director Hong responded that he was familiar with Stephens' work and that whether he agreed with it or not was beside the point. The point was Stephens' earnest belief in his own interpretation and his well-thought articulation of same. So though it might appear to some that Director Hong is purposely evasive when he refuses to confirm interpretations as they come winging at him from audiences, perhaps he is in effect trying to keep things open, aware that all too often a meaning guised as an equation is the first step of a petty dismissal. I suspect Director Hong doesn't want his films to be dismissed; he wants them to be savored and considered.
The only other point I might make in this preface is that Director Hong is a party animal. When you are drinking soju with him he is animated and forthcoming because there is something natural about that kind of interaction and—as any Dionysian will tell you—drink is the great loosener. A Q&A session following a film is essentially artificial and whether in opposition to that or perhaps because he—like myself—was hungover and tired from being up most of the night, Director Hong was alarmingly softspoken and laconic. Sitting only a few seats away from him, and even with a microphone in front of him, I could barely pick him up on my digital recorder so rather than a literal transcription, I have had to go the way of reconstruction. This seemed somehow appropriate when considering a film that says so much about the limitations if not the fabrications of memory.
I found it intriguing that the first question asked at both Q&A sessions revolved around Director Hong's characters being involved in the film industry. Was this due, Director Hong was asked, because as a filmmaker he is personally involved with the characters and the writing? Or is there some special significance about his characters being involved in filmmaking?
Developing his characters and situational choices are an intuitive process for Director Hong. He isn't necessarily trying to be autobiographical. It's just what he knows and what he thinks of automatically when he's configuring his scripts. He purposely folds in fictional elements to veer away from sheer autobiography.
I asked about the structure of Virgin Stripped Bare and what his intention had been in numbering the chapters? Director Hong replied quite candidly that it had been such a long time since he'd made the film that he couldn't quite remember what he had intended. The structure was what it was. But as he had come in to watch the last of the film, he quite enjoyed it and was grateful to have worked with the actress Eun-ju Lee who, sadly, at the age of 25 took her own life.
With regard to the numbered structure, I probably gained more insight afterwards by a user comment at IMdb by someone named "Callisto" who indicated that the seven days or stages of the courtship start out from Jae-hoon's point of view, and then shift to the same seven days/stages from Soo-jung's perspective, or memory. "The differences are subtle but I felt they were very real," Callisto writes. "People tend to have different perception[s] of the same event, or they may remember different salient points, or even mix up memories. For example, in one kissing scene, [Jae-hoon] remembers sweeping a fork off the table while Soo-jung thought it was a spoon. The events and dialogue also get mixed up as memories get hazy. For instance, a particular dialogue about drinking took place in two places in the different versions." Using the fallibility of memory as a narrative structure lends to what has frequently been described as the film's Rashomon-effect. One audience member asked if Director Hong had purposely intended to emulate Rashomon? Though admitting that he likes the film Rashomon very much, Director Hong said he did not have that reference in mind when he created Virgin. If anything, influenced by many sources, whenever Director Hong does something wrong in a film, these influences speak up in his psyche to correct him.
Further, I gained insight from the comments of one audience member who stated: "I'm curious about the structure of the episodes. There's like almost two halves but they're not mirror images. They seem to be variants of possible ways [this relationship] could play out. The two men seem to be in competition for the woman's affections to varying degrees in different episodes and she is either intrigued by one or the other or not; she's diffident. What's amazing to me is how deep you go with the characters. How you show them warts and all. And the interesting thing about whether they even know who they're with! Most obviously when the guy says the other girl's name when he's making love to [Soo-jung]. I think that's so true in a way but I've rarely seen that in a film, even in novels. The other comment was simply on the [carousel-like] music, how it cues us to the comedy of errors."
One young woman wasn't sure what Director Hong was trying to achieve by Eun-ju Lee's character of Soo-jung. Was he trying to present a liberated Korean identity? Or present her coping mechanisms with the reality of her situation? Again, Director Hong basically answered that what you see is what you get. He wasn't "trying" to express anything through her character. He simply was showing her as she was. His stance is that "life is full of good things" but that the mind with its perceptual and interpretive overlays distracts from an immediate sense of well-being. Or, alternately, that social programming interferes with an individual sense of well-being. The young woman queried whether Soo-jung was acting passively because society had programmed her to be passive? "I can't say that she's behaving passively," Director Hong countered, "she's calculating and very aggressive sometimes." He felt her character needed to be presented in concrete lines and from there someone watching the film could interpret her character however they pleased. He wasn't trying to express a "message" through her character.
Director Hong was asked where the title for Virgin came from? Where the male characters came from? And if he had male friends like these characters?
The film's title is borrowed from a Marcel Duchamp piece. Director Hong liked the title and wanted to use it himself. He knew the title before he even started writing the script for this film. Again, the male characters are combinations of fact and fiction. In the past he experimented with direct portraiture but found that it blocked his creative process. A direct portraiture exerts a "psychological pressure" on the process that he has since avoided.
Following up on the reference to Duchamp, a woman mentioned that there had been some reviews written about his films referencing Duchamp and Truffaut. As a Korean filmmaker, she wondered whether he had been influenced by French artists and writers?
Of course there are French writers and artists that he very much enjoys. In his 20s he was particularly fond of Andre Gide and read him nearly every day. And he enjoys the films of Robert Bresson. But the truth is that he has been influenced by many people, not just the French.
Director Hong was asked what kind of film stock he used and where he derived inspiration?
With unabashed candor Director Hong admitted he had no idea what kind of film stock the DP used. As for inspiration, he likes to start from everyday situations and then he builds from there. Within such situations there are inherent structures, movement is already present. For example, the inspiration for Virgin came from a chance encounter with an elderly friend who drove by when Director Hong was out walking. The friend rolled down his window, called out to him, and introduced him to his young fiancé. Afterwards, Hong ruminated on this unlikely pairing of an elderly gentleman and his youthful bride.
One audience member felt like many of the scenes were improvised and wondered if that was so? He asked if Director Hong allowed randomness in the shooting process to be part of the final film?
Director Hong explained that he starts with a script outline of about 20 pages, which amplifies into about 50-60 pages. Using this outline on set, he plays with the images, develops the characters, the dialogue, the situations, so though there is some flexibility he has a clear sense of what he wants and what he's striving for. Every shooting day he writes what he needs to capture two or three scenes. The actors may not know exactly what they are going to say but they have an approximate sense of what has to happen to achieve the scene.
Brian Darr asked a question that built on the preceding question. Conceding that it's been a while since Director Hong filmed Virgin, Brian was nonetheless interested to know if there were any specific surprises or things that were different than he expected when he first started out making the film?
"I don't get surprised," Director Hong responded, "because I don't expect too much." He explained that he respects the process of filmmaking and doesn't have too set a program when he goes on set. To do so would be to court disappointment. Rather, he starts slow and builds upon situations. He feels his job as a filmmaker is to make situations as concrete as possible.
Aware that Director Hong attended school both in Berkeley and then later in Chicago, I was curious whether he had come away from his American experience with anything that later influenced his films, which are primarily situated in Korea?
He answered that when he was here in Berkeley training at the College of Arts and Crafts, it was like being in a mental hospital. He was a very confused person at the time, depressed, and not really normal. But he loved the good weather. Loved being able to walk barefoot. Enjoyed his teachers who he found to be nice. It helped him gain his bearings enough to continue his education in Chicago. There, he was influenced by the work of others around him and achieved direction and purpose, enough to approach narrative filmmaking.
One fellow admired Director Hong's "painterly" compositions and asked him to speak about his working relationship with his cinematographers. Director Hong replied that, when he hires a cinematographer, the first question he asks is if it will be okay if he frames the shots. Some cinematographers don't like to relinquish that control. But Director Hong wants to make sure they will capture what he wants to present. He feels very lucky to have found his current cinematographer Hyung-ku Kim [who, incidentally, also worked on The Host]. They understand each other. The cinematographer on Virgin, however, was Yeong-taek Choi, who likewise worked on The Turning Gate. He just tries to discretely tell his cinematographers what he knows. By this gentle manner, he achieves strong collaboration.
Brian wrapped up the Q&A session by asking Director Hong if he imagined working in black and white again, which of course he said he would love to do. Watching the final scenes of the film, he very much enjoyed the look.
Brian Darr's Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blogathon is venued at his Hell On Frisco Bay site.