Even seasoned film writers struggle to put into words the enduring appeal of Hong Sang-Soo. Shortly after seeing his latest film at Locarno, my roommate and fellow academy critic, Lauren Carroll-Harris, proposed a Twitter experiment: “let’s search for combinations of “charming” and “Hong Sang-Soo.” The results were both hilarious and predictable. For whatever reason, Hong Sang-Soo — in spite of being universally beloved — often falls into a black hole of critical thought, as “cute,” “charming” and “sweet” proliferate when his name is brought up. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of this too.
Hong Sang-Soo’s new film Right Now, Wrong Then is about a film director (Jung Jae-young) who meets a pretty young painter (Kim Min-hee). They go for coffee, get drunk and end up spending the entire day together. She finds out he is being dishonest and things fall apart. Then in a quick structural shift, the narrative refreshes — the characters meet again for the first time and we’re set on a new path.
In a world poisoned by irony, it’s difficult to approach films or filmmakers that are utterly sincere, in particular when it comes to love. As a society, it seems we have lost touch with discussing the world without cynicism or suspicion; we may love how Hong Sang-Soo makes us feel (even when it is sadness or disappointment), but we are unsure how to talk about it. Maybe in the neurotic world of criticism, the characters of his films hit a little too close to home, and to start breaking things down is to cut through our own sense of self (or maybe not).
Much of Hong Sang-Soo’s magic comes from his use of framing and long shots, which allow time to naturally pass. These tools allow action and performances to unfold with a cozy, lived in naturalism. The artificiality of this particular structure only succeeds because of his subtle style; it IS constructed, but in such a way that allows humanity and spontaneity to shine through. The small gestures and inclinations of the characters create waves of emotion. Regret, desire and love emerge from small giggles, glances or sighs. It almost seems impossible that they could be captured on film; they are too real, too idiosyncratic — this is the magic of the director’s work.
When writing about Hong Sang-Soo, it becomes increasingly obvious why we fall back on idioms or shortcuts to discuss him. He channels emotions that are so ethereal poetic, and it’s almost as if talking about him critically breaks the spell. Maybe if I were a better writer I could dig deep into his technique and how he fully uses those things to put his ideas across — but I can’t. I can really only speak for how I feel deep down…and that is with an incredible amount of love. Not just love for the film, but for the love channeled through it. Love makes life worth living, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.