So it's settled: Sang-soo Hong is officially one of my favorite working filmmakers, Korean or otherwise. Despite not having much in the way of a cinematic tradition, Korea1 has become perhaps the most exciting film country going. Even relatively high-profile releases like Chan-wook Park's Oldboy, Joon-ho Bong's The Host and Ki-duk Kim's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring transcend their genres somewhat and do a fine aesthetic job of it all the while. But those movies tended to trade, to varying degrees, on spectacle and the exotic, and in those qualities lay their weaknesses. In the first two films of his that I've watched — the previous being Woman on the Beach — Hong retains all the refreshing qualities of modern Korean film and excises, as it were, the excesses, using materials drawn from life and trimming end results down to their barest elements. If there's a reliable formula to win my cinematic love these days, that's it.
Like (the more recent) Woman on the Beach, Woman is the Future of Man revolves around a male-male-female trio of nominally artistic late-twenty/early-thirtysomethings: that movie has a filmmaker, a production designer and a composer; this one has another filmmaker, an art professor and a painter. Hun-joon the filmmaker and Mun-ho the art professor, having celebrated the former's return from an extended stay in the States by — what else? — pounding bottle after bottle of soju at a café, decide it would be a fine idea to go visit the girl, a painter named Sun-hwa, whom they both, at one point or another, left behind. Because these two are men in line with what appears to be a Sang-soo Hong tradition, they're disoriented bundles of excuses, ex post facto rationalizations, flimsy false sincerity and sheer ineptitude, and thus their visit to the former ladyfriend turns out to be just about as healthy and productive as you'd expect.
Seeing these two films and reading descriptions of Hong's others lead me to believe that he works within a narrow subject band, but man oh man, does he work within it. Seeming fully to grasp Ebert's dictum that a film is not about what it is about but how it is about it, he minimizes the focus on the what and maximizes the focus on the how, sometimes going so far as to announce events in advance, thus freeing the audience of the burden of that what-happens-next? vigilance that sucks attention away from the other elements. In this film as well (apparently) as in his wider body of work, Hong uses patterns, cycles, repetition and a to enormous advantage, creating richness out of small-scale actions, interactions and conversations visited and revisited like themes echoed and varied throughout a piece of music. There's a certain kind of cinematic pointillism at work here, taking countless little (sometimes only loosely related) bits and pieces of life as you'd watch or hear if from the other side of a park or restaurant — one friend offering another the first walk through untouched snow, in this case, or a momentary outburst due to another's "American-style" hugging of one's wife, or the confrontation by a student of his teacher holding drunken court — and reassembling them into an image that, viewed, from two different distances, can be appreciated on two different scales.2 What you notice in the whole, you don't notice in the part; what you notice in the part, you don't notice in the whole.
Perhaps it's best to quote Hong himself on his creative process:
I start with a very ordinary, banal situation, and this situation usually has something in it that makes me feel strongly. It's a stereotypical feeling, but very strong. I have this desire to look at it... perhaps it's a blind feeling. I put it on the table, and I look at it. I open up, and these pieces surface. They are not related, they conflict with each other. But I try to find a pattern that makes all these pieces fit into one.
Many complaints about Woman is the Future of Man's lack of a "payoff" float around the tubes, and indeed, that's just the sort of convention to which mediocre screenwriters enslave themselves. I say it's an indication of Hong's unusual skill: he grasps a great many things about cinema, but his most important understanding is that he's making films, not slot machines. What filmmaker couldn't stand to be reminded of that?
1 Some insist on calling it "South Korea", but really, isn't it so much easier to call the south "Korea" and the north "North Korea"? It's just like "Virginia" and "West Virginia": the trick is to stay out of the one with the cardinal direction.
2 Hong also, so I hear, employs a great deal of wordplay and general verbal wit, which gives me something to look forward to fifty years from now when I have finally gotten a handle on the Korean language.