Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo does not like the term ‘auteur.’ Yet the most natural thing to associate with him when he describes his ‘process’—he doesn’t think that’s a good word either—is precisely that. He first comes up with a short film treatment—in his most recent works as short as three pages—and decides where to film. Then, before any substantial screenwriting has been done, he gathers the actors and gets to know them with the intention of fitting the script to the characters he grasps in them. Every morning before filming begins, he writes the script for the day, inspired in part by the setting, though always keeping in mind the thought that sparked the film in the first place.
The Harvard Film Archive in conjunction with the Korea Institute presented a retrospective of Hong’s work for the past two weekends, and Hong himself had flown in to Boston to attend various question-and-answer sessions around campus from Friday through Saturday. Over the two days, I had the opportunity to see a few of his films, attend several in-person events, and even talk with him privately. The Hong that emerged, when I immersed myself intensely in his work and in him as an artist, was simply a citizen of humanity—but one who is extraordinary in his curiosity about his world and exemplary in his revelry in the mundane glory of everyday.
True to his eminent sense of wonder, Hong takes his filmmaking as a platform for discovery rather than one for an ulterior intent, or even for an artistic message. “Some things I come across in every day life sparks curiosity in me,” Hong said [translation from Korean done by author]. “My films are a way for me to unravel these things.” It would be wrong to say though that Hong attempts to figure out a certain situation or even to make sense of them. His aim is not conclusion; his aim is the act of taking note. At the Q&A after the screening of “Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors,” Hong said, “I want to stay around, look, discover. … As soon as you make a conclusion it becomes another lie.”
Even through the interview and the student Q&A session on Friday afternoon held by the Korea Institute, Hong’s aversion to conclusions of all kinds showed through. He responded to sweeping questions about filmmaking and the film industry simply by saying that he didn’t know, or that he wasn’t in a position to answer them. “I’m not a film critic,” Hong joked. All this is indeed not to say that he is a curmudgeonly artist just as prone to being stereotyped. When he saw my confusion, he kindly explained to me as an old friend would, “all of us have an urge to categorize everything. We feel safer when we can pinpoint what we know, because we can feel like we own it in some way.”
Hong is therefore resistant to any labels that critics put on his work. “When people say ‘art film’ there are so many things attached to it. I don’t like the nuance there,” said Hong. “I don’t want my films to be categorized. I want my films to be my films.” Nonetheless, it is tempting to call his works ‘art films,’ as tempting as it is to call Hong an auteur. “Virgin Stripped Bare,” for instance, is shot entirely in black and white (though Hong claims the choice was made because he like black-and-white photography and not in order to perpetuate any parallels with avant-garde cinema). His works feature fascinating interplays between structure and content that beg to be interpreted and analyzed as an instantiation of an ‘art film.’
Not that Hong would resent any reaction to his work. “I’m curious for any kind of response,” said Hong, and indeed, he showed a certain detachment from acclaim or criticism. This can possibly be attributed to his thought that “there isn’t anything objective. There are only conflicting subjective viewpoints.” Hong’s desire then is to constantly enlarge his own subjective viewpoint: to see the details that others would miss, to intuit the feelings others would ignore. It is a desire that translates to his filmmaking. “You’re stuck with a certain view for your entire life,” said Hong, “and only once in a while, you see things differently. I think that’s a great thing. That’s what I try to do.”
Analyzing a man who resents conclusions is arguably a reductive task. Though I had only interacted with Hong for a short time, I sensed strongly that his character was remarkably consistent with his work. His films uncover, and even outside his filmmaking, he is constantly uncovering. Maybe I can borrow the words Hong used when he was referring to how he gets to know his actors: “It’s not an analyzing process. It’s feeling.”
—Staff writer Susie Y. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.