The Humanists, my monthly film column at 3Quarksdaily, returns this week with a piece on Sangsoo Hong’s Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors:
“Art is the concealment of art,” someone once said. Though sources conflict about exactly who that was, his words must have reached Sangsoo Hong, who toils to produce films that look and feel like nothing at all. This is a canny strategy to raise cinephiles’ eyebrows: plain people doing plain things, plainly portrayed? Then there must be something big and complex grinding away beneath the surface. While this way of thinking often leads straight to a dead end, the wall against which earnest film students beat their heads until their grad school fund runs dry, it pays off when applied to Hong, the most distinctive filmmaker to emerge out of South Korea’s cinematic boom of fifteen years and counting.
The Hong movie, of which ten specimens with a strong family resemblance now exist, is both a hard sell and an easy one. Spartanly unadorned, it’s built out of long, often unmoving shots of decidedly un-epic subjects. Its large stable of floundering creative types — writers, composers, filmmakers — pass the time hanging out in pubs, taking car and train trips, pounding bottle after bottle of liquor, stumbling into wanly unappealing sexual encounters, and blearily, unconvincingly, insisting upon their worthiness as artists, as lovers, as human beings. Their conversations are as outwardly inane as anything overheard on public transit or in hotel lobbies around the world. Despite the small scale of their problems, solutions refuse to budge from the hazy distance.
Yet it can all be so relatable. Though subject to a wide range of cultural and temperamental oddities — about which more later — Hong’s flighty monuments to frustration endure, in some sense, the same problems we all do. They want to stake out recognizable individualities, to do work that will make a mark on the cultural world, and to hook up with the men or women they’re particularly into — to connect, in various senses. But these broad desires are also vague, and they’re easily overwhelmed by the detritus of the moment. In Hong’s world, this detritus manifests as an endless stream of cigarettes, bottles of soju, chintz in all its forms, and sudden opportunities for sexual congress.
But do check it out in full. I don’t know whether it’s the highly concentrated dosages of Anthony Lane with which I’ve lately been injecting myself or the film critics I’ve been interviewing for The Marketplace of Ideas, but my interest in film criticism has been fired up lately. Maybe I just need a form to quixotically attempt revitalizing.