Stylus magazine once ran a profile of Sang-soo Hong, which opens as follows:
As a burgeoning filmgoer, I once idealized the perfect film as a completed jigsaw puzzle, where every piece fit, ripe for savoring. But there was a turning point where looseness became a virtue, rigidity became a vice, and holistic perfection was an oxymoron. Suddenly, it was possible to imagine a L’age D’or without its faux-documentary facade, an Eraserhead without gurgling chickens, a Mouchette without bumper cars, meaning without any sign of joy. There is a reluctant moment akin to pubescence in auteurist cinephilia, when every glance, every word, every color becomes a conscious choice, rather than an inevitable constituent. This is why the term “auteur theory” has always struck me as overly hesitant: how can the fruit of quantifiable decision-making be theoretical?
The author's experience mirrors my own, and our dual appreciations of Hong probably spring from a similar root. Nothing in his movies feels accidental, or at least nothing in them feels as if it was included accidentally. From what I understand, Hong is actually a skilled cultivator and user of accident — reputedly getting his actors drunk both in advance of and during shoots may have something to do with this — and he presents the fruits of his accidents only after meticulous selection and arrangement.
Not that I want to front like one of those process-not-product wonks — after all, if you don't have the product, the process doesn't mean dick — but I'm enamored of Sang-soo Hong's processes. I'm obviously into the products as well, as you'd gather from even a casual browsing of this journal's recent posts, but the more I learn about the way he works, the more I admire it. What initially grabbed me was his unsual attention toward structure. A refreshingly direct quote of his is often refrenced: "People tell me that I make films about reality. They're wrong. I make films based on structures that I have thought up." Structure seems an underused starting point for cinema, although it might be argued that it's actually the most common starting point in that screenwriters' first order of business is often to stick themselves with the old three-act stricture, as it were. While it's served certain recent films, especially Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop, quite well, I wonder if it's not high time to give the three-act a semi-dignified retirement. Hong actively works to bring this about.
Another element of the Hong method that I hold in increasingly high esteem is his insistence on shooting in sequence. Pen-ek Ratanaruang did the same in Last Life in the Universe, to astonishingly effective results. In both director's films, this appears to be another way to harness chance: when the actors and the other creators know that what's previously happened on the set is also what's previously happened on film, they can more confidently improvise and allow unscripted developments to evolve into essential components, allowing the whole project to more easily change for the better. In an interview with Cinema Scope, Hong describes incorporating into the work his responses to the locations and actors:
If I chose a different actress or actor, I might have come up with a different ending. I have some of the details, and then I shoot this person, and my response to this person and what she gives me makes up the next day’s storyline. One important factor contributing to that particular ending is who she is in real life. If you have too much conceptualization, the options in terms of where you get details are restrained, because of this strong outline. Of course we need some kind of outline, but I really like to pick up details from other places beyond the main dramatic points. For me, those dramatic points are not the centre. It’s up to you how you connect them. The details come from an unusual place and make a pattern, but patterns don’t necessarily have a symbolic meaning. That’s not my intention. My job is just to make a complex pattern so people can feel something that is alive. I can think of a person [points at a woman] — let’s say you and I met her and after two hours you can talk about her this way and I can talk about her that way. Because she is a living being, we can say different things about her. That’s as far as I want to go, rather than telling you what to feel.
Were I to write a short manifesto laying out the nature of excellence in modern film, I could hardly do better than that.
By virtue of its own distinctive structure, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors takes events presumably shot in sequence and shuffles them into a nonlinear chronology from two individual perspectives. Of these, the main event is the deflowering of screenwriter and titular virgin Soo-jung by wealthy-ish rake Jae-hoon. Hong chops the coupling itself and the leadup to it into fourteen chapters, or seven from Soo-jung's perspective and seven from Jae-hoon's. The latter has more of a rom-com feel, if cinema stylized so unlike a rom-com can be deemed rom-commy at all. The former is imbued with more of what I would call a claustrophobic ominousness.
This sounds, I realize, a bit like the makings of one of those tiresome he said/she said affairs: "Hey guys, women think like this, but men think like this!" Despite his avowed thematic interest in memory and this subject matter's easy suitability for storytelling via unreliable memories, Hong eschews such obvious techniques. Soo-jung and Jae-hoon's perspectives depict, for the most part, the same events; much dialogue is echoed between the halves. The movie expresses variety of perception much more subtly, with light, blocking and camera placement; the differences lie in what's revealed. Any and all incongruities are conveyed purely cinematically. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is a film that could never be a book. And it certainly ain't no jigsaw puzzle, that's for damn sure.