Vague Visages’ In Water review contains minor spoilers. Hong Sang-soo’s 2023 movie stars Seok-ho Shin, Seong-guk Ha and Seung-yun Kim. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
At this point, I sincerely believe that Hong Sang-soo is deliberately taking the piss out of film festival programmers and audiences. Once again, the South Korean director has made three movies in the past year. As with all of Hong’s films since he attained some measure of critical and cult-like appreciation, The Novelist’s Film, Walk Up and now In Water have premiered at major film festivals.
Lately, Hong has moved towards a deliberate anti-style, towards making films that have almost no discernable or “pleasureable” aesthetic or film grammar. With In Water, that manifests itself in almost an entire film’s worth of out-of-focus and mid-shot long-takes. Granted, Hong eases viewers in, as the first few minutes are in focus. Then, he uses the blur of an unfocused camera. The man next to me in the screening got up and went to the back, presumably to tell the staff that the projectionist must have made a critical error. But no, this is how it’s meant to be. The man sat back down, tried for a further 10 minutes, then gave up and walked out. He missed the only other in-focus shot of the entire film, a close-up of some fishes in a pond.
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Only Hong could get away with a film as slight and frankly ridiculous as In Water. With the director also working as the (deep breath) writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, sound designer and music composer, the movie was made with little money, shot in six days and edited in one. Thanks to Hong’s fastidious work-rate and instantly identifiable style, he has built up name-brand recognition for himself as an auteur that can be readily leveraged into an annual string of festival premieres. Because, let’s face it, if you’re a festival programmer who receives a low-budget one-hour film from an absolute nobody, mostly shot out-of-focus, in which three friends amble about on a quaint seaside village and otherwise do absolutely nothing, you would quite logically tell that filmmaker to fuck off. But this is Hong, see: you don’t refuse a Hong when it lands on your desk.
The Novelist’s Film was shot in over-exposed black-and-white, giving the whole film a washed-out look, so extreme that the backgrounds sometimes become little more than a blank screen. Hong has gone one step further with In Water, a film in which the faces are barely visible and one can only make out the characters’ gestures. It’s as if Hong is goading and taunting audiences. What kind of slight, meaningless and even amateurish film can he make before a harried, overworked and underpaid programmer snaps?
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After all, film festivals, especially the biggest ones, are in the business of producing and selling cultural capital — or, in other words, bullshit. The box office figures for a festival-premiering film’s theatrical run is ultimately meaningless: what matters to these festival heads is how much clout, buzz and talk each installment delivers; a self-perpetuating, never-ending cycle of bullshit propped up by more bullshit. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, by the way. It’s the way things are in this space, and if this is one of the compromises that artistically-minded filmmakers with no interest in box office receipts have to make to survive financially, then that’s fine.
Hong, I think, knows this. His films feel increasingly like both a deliberate rejection and approval of this world. At this point, he is doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants, for the tiniest budgets possible. Critic Ben Flanagan wrote of The Novelist’s Film last year: “his films exist not to be watched, or discussed, but to be made,” and that’s absolutely true with In Water — the important fact of a Hong film is that it gets made. And his movies keep getting made — small stories with one variance here and another here, endless repetitions, forever being produced for the sake of being produced.
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Berlinale, for all its strengths as a festival fueled by politically-motivated and socially-conscious filmmaking, is also often weighed down by a surfeit of social-issue dramas, convinced of their own import, made by filmmakers who spend years chasing accursed development money from state funders and organizations to make films that they earnestly feel might change the world.
The concept of a Hong film exists in direct opposition to this endless chasing of funding from a small army of well-educated arts workers whose job is to look at your funding bid and decide whether your thoughts are worthy of taxpayer’s money, whose job is to justify this and their own anxieties about waste. There’s an endless line of “development,” “workshopping” and funding rounds, all poised mostly towards killing the eureka moments of inspiration that power great artistry. Hong’s endless productivity and looseness is evidence of what filmmaking can look like once we reject the tyranny of funders and this infrastructural disease.
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And of course, for those willing to look, there is a viable and serious artistry behind the seeming amateurish In Water. The camera is technically in focus — it’s just a very shallow focus –evidenced by characters who enter a scene from behind, a brief return to the safety of high-definition before wandering out into the “blur zone.” Every shot, incidentally, is actually set at a different level of focus; some are a hazy smudge, while other items and facial expressions are just about visible.
In a film where the central story is a director-protagonist struggling to come up with a script to shoot with his two actors, the blurriness may well be a very obvious bit of symbolism to reflect the protagonist’s mental state, right? Because he hasn’t got a clear vision for his film? It’s possibly an experiment unto itself — what does an out-of-focus camera do to the actor’s performance? Does it change the audience’s response to their gestures and movements? Does it force viewers to rely on tone of voice and dialogue more? Does it distance the audience from any sense of delicacy and intimacy between actors? As I sit and type this review, my mind drawing back to the film itself, I’m shocked to see that I “remember” In Water as being in-focus, my brain mentally filling in the gaps after the fact.
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In Water is a slight and tiny whisp of a film in which very little happens and the most memorable facet is the out-of-focus anti-style. But in the context of a film festival, in the context of Hong’s career — a director whose work gets better the more you watch it — the 2023 movie feels amusingly brilliant, both a genuinely sincere work from a master and a brilliant work of self-satire, aimed at precisely the audience it intends to skewer and precisely the audience most likely to see it, making viewers complicit in the director’s own little genteel game. Wonderful.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.
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Categories: 2020s, 2023 Film Reviews, Drama, Featured
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