The Fragile Focus on Memory
There is a moment in The Turning Gate where the central character Kyong-Su (Kim Sang-Kyung) turns to his lover Son-Yong (Chu Sang-Mi) and says that all Koreans look alike. Coming from a non-Korean this might seem racially abusive, and coming from a Korean self-deprecatory, but the response director Hong Sang-soo would seem to be looking for in this scene around two thirds of the way through the film is its phenomenological acceptance. The line comes as Kyong-Su and Son-Yong are lying in bed and he suggests that he thinks he saw her husband with another woman a few days earlier in another part of Korea. During the scene we might be sifting through our own mind trying to recall if the man he sees while out on the lake who asks if he can borrow a lighter is the same one whom we now know is Son-Yong’s husband. If we are offended by Kyong-Su’s comment, then what happens if we don’t remember the man’s face? Does it not prove that for us, in this instance, all Koreans look alike?
We might even stretch the point and wonder if Kyung-Su’s two lovers in the film don’t look alike as well, and that part of the film’s point rests in one’s desire for something different cannot easily be distinguishable from finding in others more or less the same. In the first section of the film he visits a writer friend in a small town far from Seoul, where he meets a woman, Myong-Suk (Ye Ji-won) long fascinated by him (he is a modestly well-known actor), and in the second section meets another woman (Son-Yong) on a train with whom he is so besotted that he breaks his journey, books into a boarding house, and pursues her. The point is that there isn’t much to choose between them if all Koreans look alike, and Hong doesn’t make them look distinctly different enough for us to be inclined to choose one over the other. It turns out that the latter knows him as well, and not only because of his fame, but knew him fifteen years earlier when they were at school together. Kyong-Su doesn’t remember any of this until his memory is jogged a little more than gently as Kyong-Su and Son-Yong get drunk.
Drink of course is central to numerous Hong Sang-soo films, and here both seductions take place under the influence of cheap Korean beer. It is an opportunity to activate feeling without generating much thought, and vital to the humour of The Turning Gate is seeing Kyong-Su drift from one situation to the next without the film suggesting there is very much agency to his actions. When he first kisses Myong-Suk it is after she initiates it; when on the train he proposes after briefly chatting with Son-Yong that she join him at the bar, she firmly says no and his body language is momentarily stranded as he then wanders along to the refreshments area alone.
One way of seeing the film is to view it as an account that seems lazily narrativised partly because it possesses a central character who has little control over his life (he is an actor for hire), a weak hold on memory, and is not very good with confrontation. Add to which he wants what he can’t have, and doesn’t want someone when they so clearly want him. If a vital characteristic to narrative is curiosity, then what weakens the link and generates a degree of humour in this instance is instead bamboozlement. Kyong-Su wanders through the film like a man who always seems a step behind everyone else, and plays catch me up with either erratic, impulsive behaviour, or copying things he has already done that seemed to work. In an early sex scene with Myong-Suk, he sways his hips while he is inside her and she says that he can please any woman with this technique. Later, with Son-Yong he does it again and asks her how it feels. She seems less ecstatic, but that might just be because she is not in love with him as Myong-Suk happens to be. After all, while Myong-Suk announced her love to him on their first encounter without reciprocation, Kyong-Su announced his love to Son-Yong without her offering the same in return.
Yet what makes the film like other Hong works so fascinating is that Hong makes the characters’ behaviour not the source for easy comedy, but instead for hard perceptual thinking on the audience’s part. When Kyong-Su muses over whether or not the man he saw was her ex, we are asked likewise to try and recall that earlier moment in the film. It leaves the scene ambiguous not because we don’t know, but because we can’t remember, a particular type of structuring absence quite different from the deliberate ambiguity that leaves a moment unknowable. In masterful films like Antonioni’s The Passenger or Godard’s Le mepris we cannot know exactly what happened during an ellipsis: whether it is Locke’s death in the hotel room in the former; what happened exactly between Paul and the secretary in the latter. The film withholds this information, it does not expect us to remember it. Perhaps those with a good visual memory will recall the face from the boat when we see the husband later in the film, but for Hong’s purposes it is probably better if the viewer doesn’t – or only half-remembers. In Film Quarterly Kim Kyung Hyun says that Hong deliberately cast a non-professional in the role as if aware that to cast someone at all familiar would cheat on the perceptually maddening. If a film casts a Korean equivalent of George Clooney in what would seem like a tiny cameo, and then shows him later in the film as the husband, we don’t have this perceptual frustration; we instead have a decent in-joke.
It is as though Hong looks for a new space between several options. These would be the ellipsis of the modernist film, the in-joke of the self-reflexive comedy, and of course the thriller that would allow a flashback to reveal information that we might have half-attended to but where we would need the director to prod us back into full recognition. In this sense the latter would be a little like the restaurant scene between Kyong-Su and Son-Yong with a director using flashback to show that Kyong-Su remembers exactly who she is. By refusing the flashback in both instances, in the restaurant scene and in the bed scene, Hong creates an ambiguous cinema that seems properly fresh. We don’t know whether Kyong-Su does remember her, or whether he happens to be saying he does because of present desires. It looks like he is less interested in accessing memory than getting Son-Yong into bed. This doesn’t mean he can’t remember: we just don’t know.
Hong creates not only ambiguities, but ambiguities within the ambiguous. Even if we happen to remember the husband’s face, would we be likely to recall the look on Myong-Suk’s the moment before the film cuts to the husband’s initial sighting? She looks shocked or surprised, but nothing is made of this and we might be left to wonder if an affair has taken place between the pair of them. If little is made of this look, nevertheless that evening Myong-Suk gets drunk and makes a pass at Kyong-Su. We assume Kyong-Su is a man she has desired for a long time, but that shocked expression when she sees Son-Yong’s husband with another woman might lead us on a re-viewing to wonder whether she is less falling in love than assuaging a wound. There seems to be something desperate in Myong-Suk’s declaration of love and a sense of exasperation in seeing Kyong-Su unable to match it. Has she heard this declaration from someone else quite recently? There is no doubt she is capable of playing games and playing with people’s feelings. Trying to get Kyong-Su’s attention she phones him and says she is about to go to have sex with the very friend he is visiting. He is in the shower, she says, with the implication that he will soon be in her bed.
Hong doesn’t only search for the ambiguous through time, he can also do it through space. After booking into the boarding house in the town where Son- Yong lives, Kyong-Su goes to a restaurant. While eating he looks across at a couple and seems to be paying especial attention to the woman, and even more so to her legs. Yet we cannot know for sure what he is looking at because Hong refuses the cuts that would make the gaze categorical. Filmed in a single take with Kyong-Su bold in the foreground and the couple smaller in the background, we see his eyes looking downward and in the direction of the woman’s legs. She seems to clock his gaze and glances very briefly at what she assumes he is looking at: her thighs. Seeing the boyfriend clocking him looking at his girlfriend, he gets up and walks over to a poster behind her, hovering over the girl, and then asks the off-screen waiter questions about it. The boyfriend gets irate, Kyong-Su is apologetic, and the scene concludes without having utilised a single cut. Presumably we are not meant to assume that Kyong-Su has confused this woman with the one on the train, even if he reckons all Koreans look alike. Is it a moment of irony that he has deliberately become a stranger in this small town so he can meet up with Son-Yong only to find himself immediately drawn to a new person? We don’t readily know because Hong’s film vocabulary makes it harder to read.
Hong’s working methods would seem conducive to the contingent. When asked if he still writes the script on the morning of the shoot he says, “usually. These days I spend longer writing. Ten years ago, I wrote in two hours and then shot. Nowadays, it takes me four hours, sometimes five hours. So I wake up at 3am, and then I might not finish until 11 O’clock. And the crew are all waiting for me. They have been waiting two or three hours for me to finish. I don’t know why but it takes me longer and longer every time.” (Mubi) Does the last minute scripting help give his work the messy ambiguity a more pre-planned screenplay would remove? This is undeniably not the way mainstream cinema works, with numerous script consultations and drafts, but of course intention does not lead to result. The more important intent isn’t that Hong writes last minute; more that he trusts his instincts to create out of the immediate world around him more or less on the day. This would seem to give his films an episodic quality, but at the same time they possess a quality of internal echoing that suggests an aspect of pre-planning, or at least the subtly thought through. Yet this is perhaps preoccupation over occupation: less the filmmaker honing his screenwriting and directorial craft, than hovering over a thematic that demands a formal consistency.
Let us call this preoccupation the reverberative manifestation and see how Hong wants it to generate not the settled certitude of narrative convention, but the messy suggestiveness of life. When Kyong-Su reckons that he wants to be with Son-Yong, he decides that the man he saw on the lake must be her husband, and then writes an anonymous note and leaves it near the house, saying that Son-Yong’s husband is a dishonest man who cheats on his wife. This creates the chaos of motivations vital to Hong’s films as we wonder whether he really is sure of the link between the man on the boat and the man he sees by the house. What we are confident about is that Kyong-Su is less interested in the truth than in getting what he wants: by thinking that the man with a woman on the lake was Son-Yong’s husband he can justify to himself that he is exposing a fraud instead of chancing his arm. Watching the film for the first time we might not be sure whether he is remembering correctly as it is unlikely we will recall the man’s face after so brief an encounter. If we did remember we would at least know Kyong-Su is telling the truth even if we accept that he is behaving badly. The briefest of flashbacks would have been enough to make it clear, but instead we are left in a mystified present trying to remember the film’s own immediate past and the motivations of the various characters. It gives the film a density of present that is much rarer in films than we are used to seeing.
This can best be explained by knowing that in most films each scene carries over an action from an earlier scene and builds narrative momentum out of strong character motivation. It isn’t only commercial movies that insist upon this coherence; we find it in the work of many films by Truffaut, Fellini, Bergman, Fassbinder, and Haneke. Even those who refuses this coherence, like Godard, Bunuel and Lynch, do so without creating the density of present that we are talking about. When we watch a Truffaut film like Soft Skin we know that the central character is frustrated with his life, exhausted by his commitments and in need of a little bit of freedom that he finds in the air hostess with whom he has an affair. Yet though Truffaut throws us a little at the end of the film, most of the way we understand exactly what motivates the writer at its centre, just as in La dolce vita we know that the writer there can’t get round to writing a book as he gets caught up in the exciting whirl of Rome life at the beginning of the sixties. We might wonder whether they are living the life they should, but their doubts and confusions don’t create quite the same in the viewer watching the film. When Kyong-Su claims he remembers Son-Yong we have no idea whether he can or not; when he writes the note about the husband’s behaviour, we are unlikely to be sure whether he really does remember, or just sees a vague likeness and thinks it is worth the risk anyway. He wants Song-Yong, not the truth. Whether recalling the husband or remembering Son-Yong, what counts for Kyong-Su it would seem is to wrestle her away from the hubby.
Yet why would this indicate a density of presence that we are suggesting isn’t a common feature of even non-commercial narrative cinema? It rests partly on the difficulty we might have making sense of both character and sequence. When Myong-Suk declares her love for Kyong-Su we can’t say whether she loves him or asks because she wants him to say he loves her; whether she is just happy finding another man after a few years apparently alone, or whether actually she has a number of lovers and feels that men are using her. In his fine Film Quarterly article, Kim Kyung Huyn nevertheless seems too keen to focus on Kyong-Su’s faults and foibles, while we are inclined to see everyone in the film as possessing the same instinct for self-preservation and self-doubt, manipulation and mendacity. When we hear the line repeated by various characters in the film – let’s not be monsters – Hong appears to be saying that this would require quite a different structure of behaviour to achieve the human. Hong’s characters are human monsters, perhaps best understood as people who possess strong drives but weak motivations. When Kim suggests that the scene where Kyong-Su looks at the woman’s legs in the restaurant could be excised, he sees an aberration that we might be inclined to see is a scene that exemplifies the director’s method. Kim believes that “the restaurant scene is, at first glance, almost “wasteful” in its failure to further the narrative. It says little, for instance, about how Kyong-Su will go about executing his plan to seduce Son-Yong. “The film is half over, and yet we are still unsure of what is in store for us. At this moment, narrative time is temporally halted.” Yet he also acknowledges that “the excesses, the halting of the narrative time, the conversations that often trail off all contribute to creating a mood of awkwardness that is typical of Hong’s films.”
For our purposes, the excess is constantly evident in his work, which is why we talk about the reverberative manifestation and the density of the present. This is not quite the same thing as the repetition Kim very understandably sees, and the ambiguity undeniably evident. Kim says The Turning Gate‘s theme of “eternal recurrence is realized through the use of repetition as its central motif. Almost every event, critical dialogue, and situation is repeated in the film, and every repetition constitutes a degree of difference. For instance, the phrase “I love you” is a verbal utterance that crucially underpins the central irony of the film, and is repeated several times.” However, what interests us more is the reverberative, which doesn’t quite allow us the formal certitude that repetition as a form of pattern recognition can offer. Now two ways in which we can find satisfaction in patterning are narration and theme. When a film reveals to us in a late flashback an aspect that the film had earlier given us a clue over concerning the killer’s identity, we are happy that the film has tied up loose ends. Many a thriller or noir feels under an obligation to leave the viewer with a strong conclusion. No such obligation is present for a thematic recognition, which instead of leading to the inevitable narrative unfolding, allows for the weave of thematic suggestiveness.
The short story that isn’t plot-driven often plays on this thematic conclusion, and two that come to mind are John Updike’s Here Come the Maples and Richard Yates’ Liars in Love. In the first, the Maples are getting divorced, and earlier in the story the narrator informs us that many years earlier Richard forgot to kiss Joan as the rings were exchanged on their wedding day, yet he remembers the earlier failure and as they divorce he gives her that missing kiss. In Yates’ story, early on a lover the central character takes up with, after separating from his wife who goes back to the US, gives him a gift of a music box. At the end of the story, after they’ve broken up, and he prepares to go back to the States to reunite with his wife, he plays with it for a moment before tossing it into the rubbish. In neither instance can we expect the endings the stories provide us with as we might the outcome of a horror story that reveals the murderer, or a noir that shows whether or not the femme fatale has conned our hero. These are conclusions of a different order: one offers thematic possibility, the other narrative probability. If the former is often more respected than the latter, often seen as an aspect of a higher art form than that of the obligatory plot, it rests on the far greater freedom there happens to be for a thematic conclusion. Updike ends his story beautifully because we feel out of the many small details the story has offered us, he has found the most poignant, ironic and suggestive. If Yates’ story ends less satisfactorily, it is because we feel he hasn’t. There might have been ‘better’ images to find within it to conclude the story, yet nevertheless, like Updike, he has numerous possibilities to work from. If narrative inevitability relies more on logic; the thematic would seem to reside more in instinct. Now even if a writer or filmmaker eschews plot convention, he or she may still create out of this rejection a game, an alternative puzzle, that is closer to the logical than the instinctive. Whether this happens to be a complex network narrative that brings together numerous plot strands or a film with fiendish twists, whether it is the Argentinean film Nine Queens, or the Mexican film Amores Perros, it is the way that elements are interconnected that still demands a form of pattern recognition as logical process.
When David Bordwell says he admires some Hou films more than others, he still seems to be drawn to the logical over the thematic, in the patterns he can find over the instincts that are being searched out. As he says, “ My two favorites, The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) and The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) have engaged the viewer in playful puzzlement about how story lines can collide or slip sideways, how our memory of earlier scenes’ action can be tested and found faulty. I haven’t been deeply engaged by his recent forays into more straightforward drama/comedy, such as The Woman on the Beach (2006), but his two latest features, both from this year and both on display in Vancouver, completely satisfied my hunger for intriguing plot structures.” (Observations on Film Art). In another blog post he quotes Hong in his defence, “People tell me that I make films about reality,” Hong remarks. “They’re wrong. I make films based on structures that I have thought up.” Bordwell believes “it’s the structures, I think, that engage us, and partly by asking us to test our memories of what we saw only an hour or less before.” But while we can accept that Hong is not interested in reality as such, it is the tension between the real and the formal that interests us. When the films are so obviously structured like Virgin Stripped Bare… or In Another Country the deliberate repetition of stories from different points of view, or the same story told different ways, can seem like a parti pris too far. While it is always naïve to assume that film’s purpose is to capture ‘reality’, often leaving it too far behind can arrive at the aesthetically stultifying. A film too concerned with its own logic, however complex and ludic, is inclined to work less strongly on instinct.
It is this interest in form but refusal to retreat from the real that leads us to think of the reverberative manifestation and the density of the present. In this sense Hong imitates reality rather than filmic convention as a means by which to create an ambiguity of response closer to life than much film art. When Kyong-Su claims that he now remembers Son-Yong, we might believe him; we might not – just as when someone informs us at a party, after we give them more details about the moment we have previously met, they claim to remember while we aren’t quite sure whether they do, or whether they are trying to wriggle out of an embarrassing situation. A film more concerned with its narrative properties will make it clear one way or the other – Hong leaves us wondering. A simple flashback would resolve the issue, or even, as often does happen in life, the person remembering fills out the context to show they now recall. Yet Hong searches out an indeterminacy that we find rather more evident in life than we find in the movies, and a great deal of the social embarrassment evident in his work, the awkward meetings and sex scenes in his films, could easily be as embarrassing as they are in ‘real life’. Partly what makes the film dense with present is that we cannot know if Kyong-Su recalls or not. If we knew he didn’t remember and claimed that he did we would know that he chiefly wanted to seduce Son-Yong. If he could remember and we were given a brief flashback recounting those moments we would accept his actions in good faith. Both options would dilute the present, leading us perhaps to recall too strongly the past or anticipate too greatly the film’s immediate future. It leads instead to the reverberative in a later scene when he says he thinks he recalls the husband on the lake, but since he can’t bring to mind Son-Yong, why would we believe he can remember her husband? Yet if we rewatch the film we can say that unless the husband has an identical twin, Kyong-Su has recalled correctly. This means perhaps that when he thinks about it he did actually remember Son-Yong too.
Partly what makes The Turning Gate so interesting is that it allows us to retain a properly ambivalent attitude towards character, which creates space for social embarrassment without schadenfreude. In the scene with the young woman and her boyfriend, Hong wants the latter rather than the former. We are unlikely to enjoy the misfortunes visited upon Kyong-Su as we might a character who we perceive as a sexual opportunist and lothario. Kyong-Su isn’t quite the womanising figure who tries it on yet again; this time without success. We can easily imagine a scenario where the womaniser tries to pull and seems to be doing just fine until the woman suddenly announces her boyfriend has just arrived and looming over the lothario is a six foot six chunk of anger. No, instead what happens is that Kyong-Su lets his eye drift in the direction of a woman’s legs. She notices, the boyfriend then notices, and trying to redeem the situation, rather than seduce the girl, he embarrasses himself still further. There is little pleasure to be had watching him make an idiot of himself, but it is an idiot that we see.
Yet as we might know, Hong’s films are populated by idiots, and we use the word specifically not to define a generic type, but to suggest how much Hong refuses such cinematic typology. When we use the term womanizer we can think of any number of filmic and literary examples, from Don Juan to Casanova, from Alfie to James Bond. But what is an idiot? There might be the holy fool we find in Dostoevsky and Tarkovsky, but Kyong-Su certainly isn’t one of these. There are the fools we find in Dumb and Dumber and Wayne’s World yet he is not one of these either. When Stanley Cavell discusses certain film types in The World Viewed he adds, “I assume it is sufficiently obvious that these ways of giving significance to the possibilities of film – the media of movies exemplified by familiar Hollywood cycles and lots that justify the projection of types – are drawing to an end. And this means, in our terms so far, that they no longer naturally establish conviction in our presentness to the world.” Cavell was writing this at the beginning of the seventies, when New Hollywood was stretching conventional generic boundaries and letting more of the real world in: location shooting, a wider range of accents, a more detailed approach to sex and violence. But the types never quite went away, and can often be found in international films too. Even many films from New Hollywood and the so-called European art house never got rid of types. Chinatown has a private eye; The Godfather gangsters, Raging Bull a boxer hitting the skids. European films like The Man who Loved Women, The American Friend and Fox and his Friends were happy to draw on types too: the womanizer, the gangster and the sucker. They played with conventions, but they didn’t radically alter behaviour. Not because the directors weren’t innovative; more that they understood that art and life are not quite one and the same. Gerard Genette explores this point in ‘Structuralism and Literary Criticism’, noting that “classical criticism-from Aristotle to La Harpe – was in a sense much more attentive to these anthropological aspects of literature; it knew how to measure, narrowly but precisely, the requirements of what is called verisimilitude, that is to say, the idea that the public has of the true or the possible.” However, Genette quotes Gilbert Durand’s term, ‘the anthropological structure of the imaginary’ to suggest there is “a dramatic imagination, in the broad sense of the term, that animates the production and consumption of theatrical and fictional work.”
Yet Hong more than most suggests that perhaps cinema and life are in many ways one and the same. This isn’t to suggest his film are autobiographical, even if he makes a film Wrong Then, Right Now, has an affair with his leading actress during the making of the film that became a scandal in Korea, and then made a film more or less about that. What interest us more is the phenomenological reality that he wants to explore as our memories might be as suspect as the characters’; our perceptual faculties unable to see clearly what is in front of our eyes because the director refuses to lead us by the nose. We might even wonder whether the director’s oeuvre is itself a little like an act of difficult-to-retrieve-memory, with most of the films showing characters a bit like Kyong-Su here, characters often writers, directors or actors given to drink, having incompetent encounters with women, betraying friends and lovers, and possessing the flimsiest of personalities. Whether it is Woman on the Beach, The Power of Kangwon Provence, 2008’s Night and Day, or Nobody’s Daughter Haewon from 2013, we often have characters wiling away days without much point or purpose. There are rarely the sort of narrative events that can allow us to distinguish even an often mediocre filmmaker’s work one film from another. Who is likely to conflate Aliens with Titanic, The Abyss with T2? Yet there are certain great directors for whom the works seem to bleed into each other, with Yasujiro Ozu and Eric Rohmer cases in point (Hong has been referred to as the Korean version of the latter). Yet maybe more than any other filmmaker this has been part of Hong’s project, to make the same film over and again not only because he is an obsessive auteur, but also because in the process he allows us once more to wonder about our faulty memory, but this time over the body of his work.
When asked about the financing of his films, Hong says “it’s not exact, but production itself is around $50,000. After production, post-production, salaries for the people working for me on a daily basis, promotions and things like that, all included it’s more or less around $100,000.” (Mubi) We sense a filmmaker living and filming as if in the same breath, trying to make films that do not interrupt the flow of life but are consistent with it, quite at odds with budgetary demands of films that suggest an army going to war rather than someone trying to live. Hong’s budgets are closer to a decent salary in London or New York, and this is something that suggests the lived world rather than the making a filmed object. We have long been told that life and the movies blur, and of course much of the realist theory of cinema has been predicated on cinema’s lifelikeness. Yet Hong insists on this as a problem of perception and of memory, as if for so long and so often films have drawn on life for a general verisimilitude, but drawn on convention and types to keep us comfortably ensconced in the filmic experience. Yet Hong’s films, that seem almost knocked off and rapidly produced, nevertheless generate a very subtle lingering that might ask us to rewind aspects of our own life as readily as return again and again to the Hong film in front of our eyes. The Turning Gate and others seem to us exercises in our faculties as readily as formal works to be broken down and comprehended. They remain maddening, but so would life if we looked at it from a certain point of view. It is that point view which Hong films.