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NYFF 2017: Hong/Garrel/Hong

Kwon Hae-hyo and Kim Min-hee in The Day After

NYFF’s second week of press screenings were scheduled in such an apropos way: over 36 hours, you could watch two Hong Sang-soo films sandwiched around Philippe Garrel’s latest. Two of my absolute favorite working filmmakers, they share at least two important traits: creating an illusion of verisimilitude so strong it’s near-impossible to catch anyone onscreen “acting,” and an obsessive return to the same super-straight-male preoccupations, with the Venn diagram decidedly overlapping at infidelity. (Claire Denis is a big fan of both, and her Let the Sunshine In acts as an unexpected companion piece to the films discussed here; more on that in a later post.)

To proceed in the order the films were screened: Hong’s The Day After is rooted in a male POV, On the Beach at Night Alone in a female one, and there’s a slight He Said She Said quality to the diptych. Hong’s denied any meaningful correlation between his life and work, claiming that he takes inspiration from personal events without directly dramatizing them — but, like they say, it’s hard to look at the ocean and say it isn’t wet. Hong’s affair with actress Kim Min-hee began on the set of Right Now, Wrong Then or shortly after, leading to a high-profile scandal. (It’s weirdly coincidental [or not?] that the affair became public in 2015, when South Korea finally decriminalized adultery, formerly a prosecutable offense [!].) At the film’s beginning, literary critic Bongwan (Kwon Hae-Yo) wakes up in the middle of the night, eats some breakfast prepared by his wife (Cho Yun-hee) and refuses to answer questions about where he’s going this time of night. You’re having an affair, she challenges; he looks into his bowl, half-smirks and doesn’t reply. Following this non-denial denial, time is compressed very rapidly: Bongwan walks right to left away from his house, the next shot showing him staggering drunk left to right back into the frame, hours/days/weeks later — it’s impossible to say. Bongwan has indeed been having an affair with his publishing house employee Changsook (Kim Sae-byok), seen in snippets of sloppy make-outs on apartment stairwells and late night subway rides huddled close together.

The dalliance comes to an unseen close and Bongwan hires replacement Ahreum (Min-hee herself). Her first day of work is when the film’s rapid-fire condensation of events stops — the rest occurs over one very long day, plus a some-time-later coda. Instead of the more usual Hong structure of immersing us in a series of disastrous/drunk decisions from impulsive start to sloppy final fallout, what’s done is (mostly) done: Bongwan’s wife finds a love note and suspects the new employee, wrongly, of being her husband’s lover. She’s factually wrong but fundamentally right: Bongwan lusts in his heart, Jimmy Carter-style, but doesn’t keep it there and is not to be trusted. The exact empirical facts of the matter can’t be established, a logical extension of Yourself and Yours (in which it’s literally impossible to fix the exact truth of what’s going on), but the essence of his character doesn’t change because of that.

Hong doesn’t bifurcate the film into mirroring sections as such; still, events rhyme. Bongwan’s wife arrives and confronts him and Ahreum, accusing the latter of being “shameless” while sitting across from them on the right side of a table; later, Changsook’s unexpected reemergence leads to a parodic recapitulation of the same scene as she expects to take her place back. Now she’s the one sitting frame-right across from Bongwan and Ahreum and accusing the latter of being “shameless” herself — this dude is trapped in a cyclical hell of his own making, in which time is characteristically better measured in the number of soju bottles on the table rather than what the clock on the wall reads (underneath the fatalistic slogan/warning “Tempus fugit”). This isn’t my favorite Hong hall of mirrors — it’s a little too trapped in a familiar pattern of events without any truly startling punctuations, save the jawdropping final scene, in which Bongwan takes a really long time to recognize Ahreum and the fact that they’re having a conversation, verbatim, they had at the beginning of the film. This scene’s been called unrealistic, but I’d suggest that’s actually totally right-on for a dude who’s half out of a bag more often than not — shameless indeed.

Bongwan’s office has box sets of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (the three Bs!) in the background, a none-too-subtle reminder that Hong’s filmography — with its recurring players returningunder different names and knowingly familiar variations on the same scenes — is most rewardingly viewed in aggregate rather than case-by-case. That’s equally the case for Garrel, whose Lover For a Day does nonetheless mark something of a new phase. Garrel’s filmography has acted to some extent as a case of extended family therapy, considering at various points father Maurice, his own life, the screen presence of his son Louis and, now, daughter Esther. This does not imply a neat chronological progression: Garrel the elder examined the impact of his father’s adultery and affair on him as a child by having Louis (sort of) stand in for himself in the recent Jealousy. Nor is a woman taking the lead a first — still, Esther is a new addition, and Lover For a Day accordingly tweaks the formula of Garrel’s post-Regular Lovers work a bit with the previously unknown element of two medium-speed dolly-ins and an uncharacteristically extensive Jules and Jim-invoking voiceover — appropriate for a film about a queasy menage of sorts.

In an unusually rapidly-cut opening sequence, college student Jeanne (Esther Garrel) meets boyfriend Matéo (Paul Toucang) for a quickie in the faculty bathroom — cut to title card after which the rapid-fire pace ebbs in the wake of his offscreen breakup with her. Jeanne heads to the apartment of philosophy professor father Gilles (Éric Caravaca) and discovers he has a new girlfriend who’s her age — Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), who swears she was the one who put the moves on Gilles for a whole semester before he caved. There’s a little competitive tension for attention between the two women; still, the potentially creepy Freudian vibes are pretty tamped down.

Lover doesn’t pass the Bechdel test though, to be fair, it’s not like the men talk about anything other than relationships either. Everyone here is on the make or worried their partner is, which can be bleakly funny if you’re in the market to laugh at e.g. this blunt exchange between two men: “Fidelity, how did that go?” “Badly.” Lover traffics in a (there’s no real other way to put this, reductive though it may be) extremely French conception of relationships as inevitably prone to dissolution regardless of if/when (and it’s almost inevitably going to be the latter) infidelity enters the equation. Jeanne asks her father what “fidelity” means and he says it’s just a word, and not everyone is faithful to the same things — one could be as faithful to words or ideas as a person. This is a form of sophistry echoing a similar exchange in I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore, when a man refuses to say he loves his partner because what does the word “love” mean? She sets him straight: saying “love” means you want to say it, for starters.

Sexual and personal restlessness to the point of exhaustion of self/others are real compulsions, manifest here in Ariane’s copious side affairs. She can have sex divorced from love just for fun and feel fundamentally faithful; Gilles can’t handle that. Indeed, for Ariane the whole idea of a satisfying relationship has a built-in roadblock: “It’s comfortable and, as a result, feels less radical.” Perhaps, she wonders, loneliness is what makes us think, move and do things — in short, art and satisfaction doesn’t come without messing around. This is not necessarily a sound argument, but it’s definitely one kind of person’s thinking accurately rendered. I love Garrel’s psychological precision and considerable aesthetic achievements while conceding there’s something regressively resonant about repeatedly returning to the same regret-instilling forms of behavior over and over. These recurring preoccupations are what allow him to come back to the same kinds of images he clearly loves: walks down Paris’s less occupied sidewalks, bedroom lounging in charmingly shabby apartments, everything rendered in gorgeous widescreen 35mm B&W.

Cyclical pathology doesn’t make these movies worse, unless we assume art is supposed to always be productively instructive and make us better people — and so back to Hong, who apparently has been on a heavy reading jag. Both The Day After and On the Beach Alone at Night have female leads who are super into books: Ahseum is asked by a cab driver “Does reading books help you in life?” “A little, I guess,” she says. On the Beach‘s heroine Young-hee (Kim Min-hee again) is on the same page: “I read a lot these days.” There’s two things going on here: reading  isn’t necessarily “useful” in terms of altering behavior for the better, but it’s valuable in and of itself. (That’s how art works!) The other reason to read is implicit: Hong is forthright about being a heavy drinker himself (e.g., “I don’t have a hobby! The only thing is that I drink”), and when trying to cut back on inebriation you have to fill that time with something else.

Taking place entirely after the emotional storm has passed, On the Beach‘s first segment (significantly shorter than its second) tracks actress Young-hee as she hides out in Hamburg in the wake of an affair with a director that’s left her, at least for the moment, unemployable in South Korea. The weather is misty and cloudy, and between that and the new landscape this literally looks different from other Hong films. Min-hee is waiting to see whether her married lover is going to join her; meantime, she hangs out with a friend and does nothing in particular. At one point, she’s seen messing around with a dinky keyboard, producing exactly the kind of music that normally soundtracks Hong’s films, as if the director has so firmly embedded himself within his characters as to pervade everything even in his onscreen absence. Uncustomarily, classical music — the same repeated elegiac excerpt of a Schubert string quartet, used with straight-faced sadness rather than the parodic deployment of “Pomp and Circumstance” in Oki’s Movie — frames events at greater remove than usual. The second segment has Young-hee back in Korea on a mostly solitary seaside vacation; alcohol-fueled intersections lubricate the story to its end, another climax in which a Woman on the Beach (per his 2006 film’s title or the end of Like You Know It All) arrives at an at-least-momentary peace with literally and figuratively walking away from the toxic men (redundancy noted) in her life.

On the Beach builds on Right Now, Wrong Then‘s airlessly nearly room-tone-free settings; barring a few crucial outbursts, both settings and people are relatively quiet. Where Right Now felt (to me) self-consciously unnatural in its attempted calm, this works better as a sad, mournful work that’s also unexpectedly heartening in cordoning off a meaningful, if probably fragile, moment for actual healing and self-improvement. There’s two out-of-character ruptures: one is the improbable number of times characters note how much Korean beer has improved in recent years while holding cans of Max Beer, which has a 0% rating on Beer Advocate (“was expecting bad and was still disappointed. Worst beer I have had in Korea and that is saying a lot”). Is this product placement? Just curious, not scolding — whatever it takes to get the financing, really. The other outlier is a recurring unnamed male whose narrative function or even physical reality is ambiguous, to put it mildly: his most unnerving appearance comes at the seaside motel, where he’s repeatedly washing the sliding door to the balcony, apparently unseen by all in the room. This is an abstract, seemingly symbolic character, different from Hong’s extensive (but, within their own confines, quite literal) dream sequences. I can’t answer questions like “Is he Death?,” but I’m amused that said window-washing is done with one hand on a sponge while the other rests on the door, smudging the glass: a metaphor for futile attempts at cleaning up one’s own life?

One of Hong’s most earnest and endearing traits is to have his characters make explicit declarations of and moral diagnoses relating to a pursuit of truth, courage and love. In The Day After, Ahreum declares her principles over lunch: she knows she’s not “the master of myself” or “leading character,” she can die at any time, and “everything is OK, everything is beautiful.” Later, she admits she’s a Christian: she didn’t want to admit this earlier, for fear of being written off intellectually. Hong isn’t exactly getting religion, but it certainly seems more viscerally attractive to him at the moment; cf. also the Buddha statue looming over Min-hee’s house in Right Now. Without an external moral structure to guide us, we must build our own: In Hamburg, Young-hee kneels down before crossing a bridge for a moment of silent reflection, later explaining she needed to commit similarly to honesty etc. Over dinner in the second segment she gets much more direct, yelling at others “Everyone’s a coward! You’re not qualified to love!” This characteristically blunt vocabulary, both direct and slightly opaque in such broad concepts as “courage” being applied so situation-specifically, is Hong’s own. It’s worth remembering words from earlier in his career, when defining his goal as to make films against the “propaganda of blind idealism and baseless hope for ourselves, which imprison our lives in a fog.” The admitted influence of Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, with its earnest koan-like imperatives towards a new cinema, can be felt in such declarations onscreen and off; Hong’s work remains similarly singular.

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