Welcome to ‘Have You Seen….’ a regular column exploring an interesting film that is worthy of greater attention – for good or for ill. The focus is on the underseen, the undersung or the underrated – or just those films you just need to write about. The focus is analysis more than evaluation so, expect spoilers!
The key question to ask about Hong Sang-soo films is, how are the conversations? This is is because his narrative style is a genre of its own, these aren’t just character led dramas, they are something different. They are Hong Sang-soo films. And like how, if you want to know if an unseen action film is good, you ask: how are the car chases or how are the fight scenes? Here, it’s about the conversations.
So, how are the conversations? Well, they are inflected with alcohol, suffused with cigarette smoke and marked by bitterness. They are effortlessly real and deeply compelling.
This is a film where every element makes thematic sense and pulls towards a central goal. The plot is simple, Seongjun is a film director who no longer makes films (he now teaches film). He is visiting a village in Northern Seoul to meet a friend, a friend who doesn’t show up. This leads Seongjun to spend three listless days in this locale.
The days are marked by repetition, feeling uniform in ways that are lightly surreal. They return to the same places, repeat dynamics and life all simmers down into a monotonous register. These repetitions are just one element that pushes the idea of being stuck in a rut, being trapped by repetition or seeking the comfort of it (a toxic impulse the film criticises).
The black and white photography also creates a sense of falsity and disillusionment. The lens here is very subjective, the monochrome evoking the flat mood of our central character and highlighting the artificiality of his interactions. The actual emotions of those around him are diluted by the black and white, a powerful way of showing how our protagonist is disconnected from life and how he feeds off of those who are not.
The film’s saddest moment, and the whole film is deeply elegiac, concerns a romantic night – filled with passionate terms of endearment – ending abruptly with a terse morning. The woman involved is swept up by the encounter, she needs somebody and finds somebody. She loves how Seongjun appears to be. But that is not how he is, and she is brought into reality when he cuts it off in the morning, presenting it like the only option. It is a tragic moment but it is so well foreshadowed by the black and white visuals, always overriding every image with sadness and falsity so that you know where things will go.
Everything here is evoking a man who is stuck. A cold and closed off man using manufactured hierarchies and power dynamics to bring meaning to a stale existence. Clearly, our lead is disaffected and somewhat of a failure. His path away from directing film is implied to be forced – or necessitated – rather than a desire. But, in this film he is a director: a director of social situations, an orchestrator of other lives.
In this village, where he has reputation holding him up and the ability to carve out a new beginning, this stagnant man can reinvent himself as something more. This is the film’s push, and it is shown as deeply sad and exploitative. But it is also shown as very real. The film understands how people use each other and uses little codes to present this both symbolically and naturalistically.
For example, after engaging in what is clearly an unhealthy love affair, our character returns to smoking. It gives him an aesthetic, and later he woos a woman by lending her a cigarette and lighting it for her – old fashioned cinematic romance. The cigarette is a symbol of regression, of the bitter past he is throwing himself into. This journey is very much a reversion. He’s going back to old friends and to a small town – a cinematic symbol of retuning to one’s past. The cigarette is an affect, but it is also him. There’s a surface level of cool and sophistication but the reality is far from this. It is just a pollutant and an outdated thing. Sharing it with the woman progresses this metaphor: it seems like a gesture of charity and affection but, really, it is one of corruption. The harm the cigarette will do, its little corrosion, mirrors his real effect.
Our character wants to control the past in order to reshape his present. This village is his tabula rasa, in theory, but we learn this isn’t the case.
At one point he meets up with the leading man of his first film, expecting glorious nostalgia. Instead, the conversation gets bitter as the actor unveils metaphorical wounds the director didn’t know he caused. It turns out, though he tries, that Seongjun can’t reforge his past – he has to accept reality. And this is why the film repeats, because he is stuck in falsity.
In this bitter conversation we encounter, as we do in most scenes, the film’s other main character: alcohol. These characters drink, they drink a lot. The way the film, and its actors, capture the specific patter of clumsy drunken interactions is perfect. Just as an observational piece, a slice of life film, this is a masterpiece. But alcohol is yet another reflection of Seongjun’s want to glamorise the past or to obscure reality. The haze of drink allows him to escape reality and to ingratiate himself. But alcohol is a poison and the bitterness soon comes. Seongjun is drunk on the possibilities of living a fantasy, of living as an image of himself, but is hit by the hangover of reality (hence being doomed to repetitions).
Why this all hits so hard is the the film’s subjective lens cleverly aligns itself with Seongjun’s perspective. Like most Hong Sang-soo movies, this film is comprised of long takes that feel observational and that allow conversation – and life – to just happen. A disaffected narration that occasionally pops up makes our alignment clear, as we hear our protagonist’s emotions, but in such a flat way. Actually, this is part of the meta element where clichéd film elements are used to represent the characters stagnation, or falsity. Black and white indie movie with voiceover? It sounds played out, unimaginative even – boringly traditional. The clever thing is that these connotations are evoked to highlight these qualities in our main character, to reveal his prosaic reality – the one he is trying to hide.
There are a few final flourishes that define the film. One is the persistent use of zooms. A conversation, or just any scene, will start at a mid shot and then, at a point, we will zoom in. This often matches Seongjun’s involvement in what’s going on; when we zoom in, we often zoom into him, denoting attentiveness. It also reflects his insularity. It is a reminder that he is selfish, in that he is gearing these social situations to himself. If the camera distance represents his involvement, he is only involved on his terms. At one point, another person arrives and interrupts the conversation, taking the attention away from Seongjun, and the camera zooms out. A powerful reminder that Seongjun is our director and wants our attention. It’s character building through filmmaking and it’s incredible.
Even the music matches our man. He can play piano, but he does it as a stunt. This reflects his approach to life, always gearing things around himself for his own needs. Rarely, we get a non-diegetic soundtrack and at one point it really stands out. The tune is piano led, linking the sound with our character and once again anchoring the narrative perspective. Yet, as the music grows, a subtle synthesiser starts to burst through the mix. This growing artificiality mirrors the reality behind Seongjun’s projected facade.
All of these elements are deeply cohesive and communicate a clear message. However, the film’s best moment is when it pulls away from this. At one point, we have a jaw dropping moment that opens up the entire scope of the film. Our camera moves over from Seongjun to the woman he’s talking to and then, suddenly, her voice bursts through. We hear her internal monologue as narration and the control of the film has been wrestled away. And then this never happens again. It is a great show of the wider world that exist, an escape from the crushing insularity of our protagonist but a moment that only serves to prove, through juxtaposition, how insular it is.
This is a remarkable film. It is quietly monumental, a totally unique character study that uses the clothing of a stereotypical indie movie of the period to actually comment on those films. It reveals their falsity, rigidity and emptiness by representing them through this central character and linking the style of the film to him. It is very clever stuff but then the film also works as pure evocation. If you want depth, you can find so much of it here, if you want faultless naturalism and humans being humans, this is also the film for you.