The brightest filmmaker to emerge from South Korean cinema’s recent boom years, Hong Sang-Soo has been making a career of reinventing the notion of the “reverse angle.” No, not the editorial exchange of shots of characters engaged in conversation across a breakfast table, or bang-banging it out over the tops of tumbleweeds. Hong, whose two-failed-romances-do-not-make-a-right crowd-pleaser Turning Gate played the New York Film Festival last year, and who’s now being treated to a BAM retro, has a much more metaphysical and broadly spaced sense of give and take.
In 2000’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Hong’s first comedy—an ultradark Annie Hall about a rich art dealer, a failed filmmaker, and the woman they both want to bed—plays shot/reverse-shot ping-pong not from image to image, but across the film’s entire duration: Its first half sets up one version of a broken love story, then uses the second half to retell the first, subtly reversing the camera’s view of events as well as the narrative’s original angles of intention, and rescinding the veracity of events we’d initially been coaxed to trust. Every new elaboration on an incident destabilizes the one before: Funny bits are reimagined as awful failings, simplicity isn’t so much erased as scribbled over into convolution, and the more characters seem to come together, the more atomized their souls become.
Hong’s anomie-steeped debut, 1997’s The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, concerns the unraveling of four loosely intertwined lives in late-20th-century Seoul—a hack writer, a movie-house ticket-taker, a water-purifier salesman, and his lonely wife—whose lives intersect at inopportune moments. Co-scripted with four of his former students (and titled after a John Cheever story), the film has a sense of urban isolation that owes a little to early films of Taiwan’s Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, though Hong claims his main inspirations were Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and one of the Lumière brothers’ documentary actualitiés of turn-of-the-century dockworkers. Hong came fully into his own with the masterful The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), in which a young professor and his younger former student/lover make separate desultory pilgrimages to the titular vacation spot—a woodsy mountain range filled with shady paths, lonely waterfalls, and threatening cliffs—over the course of the same sad weekend, yet never catch so much as a glimpse of one another. Back in Seoul, the miserable lovers reunite, but the force of the film isn’t so much in their final clinch as in all the strange details that characterize their weekend away: a fish mysteriously flopping about on a remote mountain trail far from any stream, an ill-fated minor character who floats past both protagonists like a noonday ghost, the sobs of a lovelorn policeman, hanging from a balcony, too drunk to fall or fly.
Gorgeously photographed and filled with startlingly fresh performances (Kangwon‘s Oh Yun-Hong, a sylph with the shape of a sea fluke and eyelids like swollen cotton sops, and Virgin‘s Lee Eun-Joo, a model of irritating desirability to rank with Breton’s Nadja, are both standouts), Hong’s films are also peppered with sly bits of cinephilia (the poster for The Untouchables in Virgin is a wry touch). But while the director’s modern mannerisms and multiple film-fest awards clearly tickle international critics, his films are every bit as Korea-specific as anything by culture-curator and Chunhyang director Im Kwon-taek. Brilliantly bifurcated and deeply suspicious of reunifications of any sort, Hong’s films aren’t just mounting portraits of broken lovers; they’re exploring the most difficult regions of his politically and geographically fractured nation’s historically broken heart.