Arrow Video: Two Films by Hong Sang-soo (2004-2005) - Reviewed

Celebrated minimalist South Korean film director Hong Sang-soo remains curiously under the radar among world cinema consumers.  Overshadowed by his contemporaries including but not limited to Kim Ki-duk, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon and especially by Park Chan-wook, Sang-soo’s works are noted for their understated dramatic power, their handsome yet subtle and mannered camerawork and for their own connection to the auteur’s life itself.  Much like the great Chinese director Wong Kar Wai, Sang-soo’s films often concern characters falling in and out of love with unspoken romantic longings and unresolved social tensions playing themselves out.  

While Chan-wook’s world renowned Oldboy proved to be all the rage at the Cannes Film Festival before locking in a firm grip on Western audiences, Sang-soo’s own Woman is the Future of Man and the loosely related follow-up Tale of Cinema came and went without generating much business or attention despite their joint critical acclaim.  And yet both works represent two indelible additions to the modern South Korean film scene more international filmgoers should acquaint themselves with.  Thanks to the always dedicated efforts of Arrow Academy, world moviegoers now have a chance to take a closer look at these quietly affecting human dramas which are as vital now to South Korean film history as they are to any film buff’s cinematic vocabulary.

Woman is the Future of Man (2004)

Considered by many to be the director’s first international ‘breakout’ film with, for some, a drastic shift in tone and approach to his earlier, heavier dramatic works, Woman is the Future of Man by title (actually an ironic spin on a poetic line lifted from Louis Aragon) sounds like a light romantic ditty.  Watching Sang-soo’s tightly constructed and often darkly comic rumination on two old friends who seek out a triangular reunion with an old ex-girlfriend they once both dated at different times, the actual film proves to be about these men and their own kindred inability to find happiness with the opposite sex.  Enter filmmaker Kim (Kim Tae-woo), who after bumping into longtime friend Lee (Yoo Ji-tae from Oldboy) decides at Lee’s behest to meet up with ex-girlfriend Park (Sung Hyun-ah) for drinks, setting in motion a myriad of unresolved sexual and emotional tensions which play themselves out over one fateful night.

A modestly paced yet subtly labyrinthine tale of male anxieties in the face of the opposite sex as well as a taut comedy of manners with dual meanings hanging over every line of dialogue, Woman is the Future of Man like its characters intentionally leaves numerous loose ends throughout the film unresolved with far more meticulously intertwined emotional complexity linking these three seemingly lost souls together than a typical romantic dramedy might.  Minimalist with deliberately repetitious symmetrically lensed vistas by Kim Hyeon-gu of characters posited on opposite sides of the frame and aided by a quiet, oddly charming score by Jeong Yong-jin, writer-director Sang-soo’s mise-en-scene keeps everything directly in front of the camera yet each exchange of dialogue reveals facets between the lines driving the film’s characters.  It’s the kind of film with so many hidden layers by the time it finishes, we’re inclined to roll it back in case we missed something. 

Performances are expectedly strong, notably from veteran South Korean heartthrob Yoo Ji-tae who as a college art professor provides a remarkable contrast to his Machiavellian villain in Oldboy.  Especially startling are Kim Tae-woo as the learned filmmaker who finds himself shriveling up like a frightened little boy as booze fuel preexisting anxieties and Sung Hyun-ah as the once frail young lady who after more than a few less than pleasant sexual experiences now stands as a woman who may have outgrown her male counterparts.  None of the characters feel like contrivances but extensions of the director’s own personality with his renewed focus on lost and wandering male characters unable to fully mesh with goal oriented women who know precisely where they’re going.

Sadly Woman is the Future of Man simply didn’t stand a chance against that other Yoo Ji-tae film released around the same time and while that film went onto become a blockbuster and international favorite, Sang-soo’s film suffered at the box office considerably.  The film also has somewhat more limited appeal to staunch cinephiles less keen on brutality and visual pizazz than dense yet subtle human stories about real people told with brevity and finesse.  That’s not to say Oldboy doesn’t stand on its own as an impeccably crafted and emotionally wrenching thriller, but it is most certainly a shame that film’s overwhelming success may have contributed to this film’s failure.  No matter, as years have passed and Sang-soo’s film gradually did amass a legion of fans and seen years later it remains an indelible work driven by the delicate narrative structure and the understated performances. 


Tale of Cinema (2005)

Far more meta than Woman is the Future of Man with a somewhat less compelling narrative, episodic format and a looser visual style keen on the zoom lens, Hong Sang-soo’s Tale of Cinema is both a love letter to the movies as well as a continuation of the recurring themes of uncertain male characters’ anxieties bubbling to the surface in the face of female determination.  Seemingly split into two separate stories, the unspoken film-within-a-film zeroes in on depressed college student Sang-won (Lee Ki-woo) who forms a suicide pact after a shaky reunion with ex-girlfriend Young-sil (Uhm Ji-won).  Soon we realize we’re watching this story play out onscreen within a movie theater alongside struggling young filmmaker Kim Dong-soo (Kim Sang-kyung) who believes the film has told the tale of his own life before inadvertently crossing paths with the actress who played Young-sil.

More broadly appealing and distinctly defined than Woman is the Future of Man, Tale of Cinema is as much an ode to the movies as well as an acknowledgement of the often blurred lines between reality and illusion.  Is film just an unattainable box of magic or does it have far more footing in the real world than people realize?  Furthermore, does film reflect human experiences or do we project onto it what we want to see and hear?  Sang-soo’s film poses these questions while still displaying a clear love for the medium and illustrates how underneath all that fantasy displayed on a movie screen is a very real and relatable person with more in common than we’re led to believe.  It’s the sort of film Godard sought to make his whole career but with an emotional center.

Making a drastic shift visually with frequent zooms and pans indicating the film-within-a-film, Sang-soo hired two cinematographers this time around with Kim Hyung-Ku and Kim Young-rho who provide in the two halves of the film two disparate visual styles.  The cinematographic result isn’t as symmetrical or polished as Woman is the Future of Man but it didn’t take long to get used to either.  Reuniting with composer Jeong Yong-jin, listeners are treated to a score that’s equal parts minimalist whimsy and heartfelt emotional strain.  Like the film’s visual approach, the sharply contrasting audiovisual styles take time to get into their mutual rhythm which can abruptly change tonally in the blink of an eye. 

As with Sang-soo’s previous film, performances are solid with both Lee Ki-woo and Kim Sang-kyung presenting the anxious young man uncertain of himself in the presence of a determined young woman, and like Sung Hyun-ah the film’s heroine played by Uhm Ji-won is focused and worldly, providing a stark counterpoint to the male characters.  Mostly, however, this is a director-driven picture with a more involved visual sense though some may prefer the more mannered style of Woman is the Future of Man to it.  While for me personally the first film in this set was the more involving of the two, Tale of Cinema is equally emotionally complex with as much to say about the world of the movies as well as those watching them.  Moreover, Tale of Cinema aims to illustrate the amounts of what we take away from a film as well as what we bring in as we watch it.


- Andrew Kotwicki