As the Korean New Wave fades and dissipates, from a throng of cultural force fields to a mere battery of individual filmographies, ambitious or withering or otherwise, one director stands as the most passionately embraced and steadily distributed in the tradition of imported art films. Strangely, it’s Hong Sang-soo, not Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho, both of whose pulpy trajectories have stalled and didn’t, in any event, summon the English-speaking world’s eyeballs expected for their psychodramatic hyperbole. Hong’s films are not crowd-pleasers, but measured, often uncomfortable meditations on Korean urbanites and their lives of power-boozing, disconnection and romantic failure. Up to now, Hong’s great modernist trope was (tellingly, for a Korean) the bifurcation of perspectives. His elusive masterpiece “The Power of Kangwon Province” (1998) is so sneaky about its doubled-up narrative and its delivery of emotional haymakers that you might not realize that it’s all about the residue of a failed romance between a college student and a married teacher until the movie’s two-thirds through. A grim, cerebral follow-up, “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” (2000) ruminates on a quietly unhappy trio of would-be lovers in a multi-chaptered relay that doubles back midway through and recounts itself as a ribbon of conflicting outlooks and revealed betrayals. (Critic Chuck Stephens has characterized Hong’s films as being “deeply suspicious of reunifications of any sort.”) “Woman Is the Future of Man” (2004) is less structuralist, but still divided, character-wise, over the possibility of love, and still craftily duplicitous about narrative — you can hardly grip the shape of the entire film until the halfway marker. When you do, the tragedy of soured lives is beyond the point of no return.
“Woman on the Beach” (2006) is less severe than Hong’s earlier films; it has a comic tone, and a bouncy rom-com score, and even indulges in medium close-ups and reckless zooms (which seem more interested in excluding things than emphasizing others). The two-guys-one-girl set-up remains, but the doppelgänging recyclings are only suggestive. It’s Hong at his simplest and most trusting; suddenly, simply letting the characters control the tale, à la Rohmer, is sufficient for him. The trio — a neurotic, womanizing director, his schoolmate-cum-set designer, and the married set designer’s “girlfriend” — head out to an off-season seaside resort to finish a screenplay. They can’t get rooms, but then they do; the men volley for the woman’s affections, but she’s sarcastic and self-assured, and gives neither of them much leeway. The relationships begin to collapse, under sexual pressure, betrayal and drunkenness. Eventually, the three go separate ways, and we stay with the director, who returns to the resort town and ropes in another woman, under the pretense that she resembles the other (she doesn’t), and haphazardly begins to relive the first dalliance all over again. And then the first woman returns…
Hong’s long scenes here are nearly theatrical in shape, like Resnais’ “Mélo,” and the actors are healthily free range — as the director, Kim Seung-woo is such an irritating, cretinous, moist-eyed mess that he’s at times difficult to watch, and it’s hard not to wonder if, given Hong’s patterns and recurring concerns, there isn’t a little autobiographical chili in the kimchi. But “Woman on the Beach” is Hong’s warmest movie, by far — the women emerge unscarred, and there even lingers a sense of hope for the men, who are usually just a step up from self-pitying rapists in Hong’s universe. The movie is not named after a 1947 Jean Renoir romance-noir, involving two men and two women and a seaside, for nothing — although Hong’s infatuation with titular French-ness (his previous two films were named with quotes from Louis Aragon and Marcel Duchamp) may be less significant than just whimsical.
Nina Davenport’s “Operation Filmmaker” (2007) is also shaped in a downward spiral. The set-up is famous by now: as the production of the Liev Schreiber-directed film “Everything Is Illuminated” gets underway in 2004, MTV airs a news piece about a young Iraqi film student, Muthana Mohmed, whose school had been bombed to smithereens. Magnanimously, Schreiber invites him to come to Prague as an intern on the film — and asks Davenport, a New York doc-maker and cinematographer, to film the young Arab’s salvation out from the war zone and into the embrace of Hollywood. The resulting doc, Davenport’s fourth feature, doesn’t head in that direction at all, of course, because Mohmed is Mohmed, not merely a thankful Third-Worlder gracefully receiving the largesse of Tinseltown liberalism. The kid reveals himself to be thankless, in fact, and chronically manipulative, dishonest, self-righteous and even classically anti-Semitic. He’s instantly embittered about his intern work (“Snacks!” he seethes), and seems, slyly, to be gaming Davenport (behind the camera), to control how he’s portrayed in her film, and to get her into bed. Eventually, Mohmed’s odyssey becomes a struggle to get his work visa renewed countless times, a self-interested run of schemes that involves a good deal of out-of-pocket cash for Davenport, and even blackmail: Mohmed steals exposed stock and equipment from her, and at one point demands $10,000 for any further appearances he will make in her film.
Mohmed is clearly empowered by Davenport’s camera; how his nascent career might’ve played out without having his narcissism fueled by being continually filmed is an interesting point to consider. At any rate, the travails do not cease even after Mohmed lands a job on the set of “Doom,” where the piles of fake zombie corpses provide queasy counterpoint to the real dead lying in the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad. (Rather brilliantly, Davenport sent cameras to Mohmed’s film school friends in Iraq, for their real-time considerations of life at home.) “Operation Filmmaker” is modest in its particulars — Davenport herself is as unassuming an auteur as we get nowadays — but it blooms in your head when you place it alongside virtually any instance, from charity to “nation-building” and war, when Western cultures attempt to appease their privileged guilt by imposing a “correction scenario” to a crisis from above. Often, like Mohmed, they have their own ideas about what should happen.
“Woman on the Beach” (New Yorker Video) and “Operation Filmmaker” (Icarus Films) are now available on DVD.
[Additional photos: “Woman on the Beach,” New Yorker, 2007; “Operation Filmmaker,” Icarus Films, 2007]