Hong Sang-Soo gets a well-earned retrospective of his melancholic but sharply rendered social comedies

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A scene from 'Night and Day' (Courtesy Film Bom)
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That the films of 51-year-old South Korean writer/director Hong Sang-Soo have been a welcome mainstay on the international festival circuit over the past decade and a half should come as no surprise; his melancholic but sharply rendered social comedies about male narcissism are often set in the milieu of filmmakers and film critics, and yes, those of us in the latter camp sometimes quietly wonder if our devotion can be chalked up to sheer insularity.

What is surprising is that these conceptually interlocking chronicles of young adults fumbling through states of drunken idiocy and false clarity so rarely gain U.S. distribution. As a stopgap remedy, Hong is being honored with a five-film retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, in conjunction with the Korea Society, starting this weekend.

MoMI’s fairly arbitrary selection of Hong features—his latest, the limpid and hilarious The Day He Arrives, premiered at the Museum last December but is absent from this program (its remarkable trailer is worth checking out)—might attest to the fact that his films almost always riff on the same basic template, perhaps most succinctly rendered by critic Michael Sicinski: “There's one asshole guy, maybe two; an attractive young woman, who will disappear and reappear as a different character; there is soju, awkward behavior, some elements of cinematic reflex, all within a tightly controlled but self-effacing realist style.”

The films are highly episodic and rarely attempt to build narrative momentum; instead, their sucker-punch effect stems from a slow accretion of detail, coincidence, and surprise. His camera favors long, uncluttered takes that capture his characters’ rambling, circular dialogue, but as an editor he cuts away with a decisive finality. Stories that begin as detached, observational slices of life are often undercut by jarring shifts in point of view. Hong’s most commonly invoked reference point is the late French minimalist Eric Rohmer, similarly preoccupied by love triangles and impasses of desire, but fans of Noah Baumbach’s more bleakly comic recent work will also find much to savor.

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Hong’s 1996 feature debut The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well—titled after a completely unrelated John Cheever story—is a patient and detailed urban drama of infidelity and interconnection that introduces a couple of Hong’s trademarks: uncanny doublings and awkward, unerotic sexual encounters. It opens MoMI’s retrospective while bearing only a superficial resemblance to Hong’s later work. Pig is emotionally rich, but too smoothly tragic; though Hong assigned a different writer to pen dialogue for each of the four principal characters, the narrative connections and coincidences are uncharacteristically explicit. The films that followed have become less expressive and more prismatic—playfully self-conscious in their formal strategies (narrative bifurcation, flashbacks, voice-over narration, dream sequences, and various abuses of the zoom lens), more interested in misdirection than meaning.

Take the enigmatic Woman on the Beach (2006, pictured at left), often misleadingly characterized as Hong’s “accessible,” broadly comic breakthrough. A handsome, creatively blocked film director (Kim Seung-woo) with one weekend to write an entire screenplay, proposes an excursion to a deserted beach resort with his production designer. The designer agrees, with the foolish but inevitable caveat that he must bring his girlfriend, Moon-sook, a budding singer. Within a matter of hours, she is drawn into the director’s erotic orbit and her boyfriend exits the stage. But it’s not a Hong Sang-Soo film yet. The next morning, the director blames his lack of progress on substandard working conditions, and they all leave the resort. Then he’s back two days later, regretting his earlier indecisiveness, and immediately meets another woman who reminds him of Moon-sook. He “interviews” her as a potential character for the new film, and ushers her to the same hotel room where he bedded her doppelgänger. Within minutes, the real Moon-sook is banging on the door, demanding to be let in, and the film’s first love triangle has reappeared in inverted form. What makes it a Hong Sang-Soo film? The director finishes his screenplay.

Despite their tight formal control, Hong’s films leave their most lasting impressions through gratuitous detail and lightly surreal non sequitur. His epic-length, understated masterwork Night and Day (2008)—which Zeitgeist Films also recently released on DVD—is set almost entirely in Paris, but our bumbling protagonist Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho, pictured above) seems to encounter only other Koreans, including, quite naturally, an ex-lover. A married man with a semi-successful career as a painter, Sung-nam has escaped Korea after being caught smoking pot with some American students, and his exilic encounters with the mundane and the tempting are at once deadpan comic and spiritually laden. Avoiding picture-postcard views of the city, the Night and Day is a relentlessly quotidian diary film, with the handwritten, calendar-stamped title cards providing hilarious punctuation to moments of blank epiphany.

Hong’s leading men will forever stand together in maladroit and sexually entitled solidarity, but in one welcome development of his recent films, the women no longer track as supernaturally passive, but rather as confused and self-destructive on their own terms. (Tantalizingly, he is filming his next project with Isabelle Huppert.) Hong depicts sensitivity, intelligence, and the exploitation of an artistic mystique as the most dependable weapons in the libido’s arsenal. The knowledge that one is acting not just despicably—but with a predictable sort of despicability—is never enough to dissuade one from collapsing into desire. He never seems to be exposing or censuring male recklessness, but rather exploring its utility as a centrifugal force, a unifying principle, something to set your clock by.

The most unassuming of contemporary cinema’s great auteurs, Hong Sang-Soo is almost certainly the most “difficult” director working exclusively in the romantic comedy genre. You can’t expect him to settle.