Hong Sangsoo: Between Men and Women

Korean master Hong Sangsoo’s films always sell out at the London Film Festival, but oddly UK distribution hasn’t followed. Tony Rayns welcomes a complete survey of Hong’s wry and witty unravellings of tangled sexual relationships.

Nobody probes deeper into the ways that men and women misread each other’s feelings than Hong Sangsoo. Claire Denis – head of the jury which gave him the Prix Un Certain Regard in Cannes this year – once described seeing a Hong Sangsoo film as feeling like being hit on the head by a rock while out walking. His films certainly have the power to shake up perceptions, but he’s never as aggressive as Denis implies. Most of the time, in fact, his approach is humorous, satirising male self-delusions and female insecurities with delicious candour.

Hong arrived out of the blue (actually, from film schools in California and Chicago) just as the Korean film renaissance was getting under way in the mid-1990s. But his films were quite unlike anyone else’s. The first three were tightly scripted gardens of forking paths: interlocking puzzle narratives focused as much on what could or should happen between the characters as on the socially embarrassing things that do. From The Turning Gate onwards, though, he’s preferred to use less forward planning: he and his collaborators work from a broad outline and he writes the scenes from day to day as they go along. Since his male leads (especially the ones played by Kim Sangkyung and Kim Taewoo, both invariably excellent) often seem like surrogates for Hong himself, there must be some confessional side to the stories he tells. But the films are fictions, not chunks of autobiography, and the many pleasures they offer include seeing how narratives twist, turn, become echo-chambers…and then end up somewhere entirely unexpected.

There are obvious parallels between Hong’s methods and those of his contemporaries Wong Kar-Wai and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, both of whom also love to explore recurring emotional ‘syndromes’ and regard films as voyages of discovery. Another reference point is the late Eric Rohmer, since both directors are fascinated by methods of seduction and the tricks and traps of the libido. Hong, though, is a better drinker than any of them, and very much his own man. His rueful self-awareness makes it easy for viewers to get caught up in the predicaments faced by his characters. The results are touching, thoughtful, sometimes startling…and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Tony Rayns

Curated by the Independent Cinema Office in partnership with the Korean Cultural Centre.

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