My Moments with Hong
By Adam Hartzell
My favorite band is a group from Leeds, England called The Wedding Present. Their songs of tormentuous love affairs and failed dreams are knives in their back that they themselves turn. Sung in all the accented splendor of their neck of the British Isles, the power pop guitar chords backgrounded much of my college years once I was introduced to them upon the release of their third album, Bizarro.
I had an opportunity to meet the band once. It was my junior year at Washington University in St. Louis and they were playing at the now defunct Hi-Pointe bar, above the Hi-Pointe Theatre across the street from the huge, I mean really huge, Amoco sign. (It was at the Hi-Pointe Theatre where this provincial kid from Cleveland, Ohio, saw his first subtitled film, the French film The Little Thief (Janine Castang,1989) starring the absolutely captivating Charlotte Gainsbourg.) The Hi-Pointe wasn't a cellar bar, it was an attic bar, meaning tiny. The only time I ever went there was to see The Wedding Present, whom I'd see two more times at future shows until their breakup in 1997. After this energizing, intimate performance in a packed little space, all the members of The Wedding Present went straight to the bar. This was my chance to meet David Gedge, Peter Solowka, Keith Gregory, and Simon Smith. I could just sit right next to them at the bar and share a few pints and points with the band about how their music helped me through my lonely nights and final exams' weeks. But instead I just walked out of the bar and back to my dorm room.
Besides general shyness and not wanting to make an ass of myself, there's another reason I didn't take the risk to step up to the bar. I admired these guys. I had an image in my head that these guys would relate to me. I didn't want to have my conceptions of the band ruined by discovering they were real assholes in real life or simply, well, lame. The image I had of The Wedding Present was too important to me at the time to lose. To meet them would have personalized the music outside of me and I needed it personalized inside of me to continue to survive my college years.
I tell you all this because this was exactly what I was thinking when I went down to the University of California, Irvine, to attend the HONG Sangsoo Retrospective put together by Assistant Professor Kyung Hyun Kim. Along with wanting to hear all the papers and be around people who may appreciate this man's work as much as I do, I wanted to meet the man. But this time I wanted to meet the man, not the myth, not the legend. I wanted to make it real this time. I didn't want to cop out and walk back home never opening this present.
I am not one to really pay that much attention to physical appearance which means I doubt myself when trying to recall how someone looked physically and what they were wearing. If I recall correctly, Hong was around six feet tall, perhaps 5'10'', with glasses and a mustache. I can't remember if he had a beard or goatee to go along with the mustache, I just remember the mustache. His dress was business casual, as I recall. I think he wore khakis and a dress shirt. Throughout the papers presentation at the Retrospective, Hong hung out way in back with his assigned interpreter from whom he appeared to not need much assistance. The papers presentation segued into a Q&A with Hong and we'd learn that Hong speaks English quite well, although he's very soft-spoken. Eventually a microphone was passed to him to help us hear him better.
Hong told the audience that he had difficulty hearing much of what was said by the presenters. The presenters did speak quickly and they provided a great deal of theoretical commentary so it was difficult for even native speakers to understand and retain much of what was said. And with Hong sitting in the back of the room with its poor acoustics, you can understand Hong's difficulties. Hong added that because of this, he wouldn't be able to comment directly on much of what was presented.
The theme throughout Hong's comments was that he feels he is "an average man living in Korea" and that his "view is not special." Many of us attending the Retrospective would beg to differ, but hearing Hong basically repeat this mantra a few times, I became reluctant to ask questions around what appear to be critiques of male privilege and class issues in his films. He'd just told two other people his views ain't nothing special so I figured he'd say the same thing if I asked him from where his perspective on these matters arose.
However, the audience was able to gain some insight into this man nonetheless. When asked about the dialogue, or lack thereof, in his films, Hong said that his films are first and foremost written for Koreans and his love of the Korean language. He likes to play with words and sentences in ways only possible in Korean. (An interesting follow up to this comment would have been for him to provide some examples, but none of us in the audience were that quick.) He realizes later, when he shows his films abroad, that he has created dialogue that is difficult, if not impossible, to translate.
It was confirmed by Hong that he does, as rumor had it, "drink a lot" with his actors. He said it's the easiest way to get to know them in a short amount of time. "Eventually, they trust me." Hong appreciates drinking and the camaraderie that often comes with alcohol. I confirmed with him later that his actors are truly drunk in the scenes they appear to be drunk. I wanted to ask him, but didn't, if such a reality method doesn't cause problems with retakes. I guess I was drunk in my own way with all I was hearing, forgetting myself and many of the questions I'd prepared on my plane and automobile trip to see him.
A student asked Hong about the "repetition" in his films. Hong's response was very interesting. He said he only recently realized the repetition. I'm roughly quoting him here, but he added something like, "In the beginning I have this goal to locate some kind of pattern that is part of everyday life. Repetition isn't the goal I aimed at. It just came up." He continued to say, "We are made of many things that came from outside." We are constantly influenced by others. We imitate others; they imitate us. We repeat many things to others and many things are repeated to us.
It's that simple to Hong. He's not trying to critique male privilege or present relationships in a cynical manner. He just wants to show patterns to limn the beauty and the horror in the everyday. What most impresses me about Hong is how he effortlessly de-sentimentalizes an often overtly sentimentalized medium. The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) de-sentimentalizes the power we give nature, Oh, Soojung! (2000), Turning Gate (2002), and Power . . . all de-sentimentalize relationships. Such a method doesn't allow for much pleasure as we normally find in films.
Hong felt a need to address this concern. "It's not my intention that I don't want to please you. I want to please you." It's just that he also wants to explore what he's deeply interested in and that's the tapestry-like patterns of relationships we weave around us.
After the Q&A, I went up to Kyung Hyun Kim to introduce myself. He immediately asked me if I'd talked to Hong yet. Knowing that's why I came, he practically pushed me away from him to go talk to Hong. "Where'd he go?" I asked. "He's probably outside smoking," Kim said.
He was. A gentlemen was talking to him in Korean so I waited my turn. When my turn came up, I quickly told him how Oh, Soojung! is one of my favorite films and that Power of Kangwon Province is the film that brought me over completely to Korean film.
Then I told him I had brought a gift for him, handing him the San Francisco Giants cap I'd bought for him while I was in attendance at Game 3 of the World Series. He seemed immensely pleased with the gift, almost as pleased as his interpreter's response which was of yelped proportion. I told him I wanted to get him a gift out of appreciation for the gifts he's given me, his films. I thanked him in the little Korean I know and I walked away quickly.
Realizing I was back at my junior year in college, I turned around and asked if I could take a picture with him. He said yes and I handed my camera to his interpreter. I followed Hong's lead and took off my glasses as he did. I thanked him again and walked away.
I got nervous soon after realizing I had just given him the baseball cap of the enemy in this Southern California town. (For those who don't know, the Giants were playing the Anaheim Angels in the World Series at the time I had given him the cap. The wrong team ended up winning.) I should have advised Hong that he shouldn't wear the cap down here or else he risked being harassed. I would learn later from Professor Kim that someone did inform him not to wear the hat until safely out of Southern California.
There was to be a gathering to which he invited the audience at Turning Gate. This gathering was at the Steelhead Microbrewery within the strip mall that borders Irvine's campus. On route to the gathering, I walked alongside Hong and Kim for a moment and asked Hong about the wonderful bossa-nova song that soundtracks the trailer and official website for Turning Gate. I told him, before seeing Turning Gate, I looked forward to hearing the song in the film. As we all know, the song wasn't used in the film. I asked if he'd come upon the song too late so he wasn't able to place it within the film. He responded "Yes, Yes" before I finished my question, aware of where my question was going. I added that the song heightens the humor in the scenes used for the trailer and it seems the song would have been more dissonant than congruent with the flow of the film. Hong concurred. Since we were headed to our respective cars, this conversation ended abruptly. Kim made sure I was going to the microbrewery as we parted ways for a brief moment.
About twenty or so people joined Hong for his favorite activity, drinking. I was anxious to talk with Hong about many other things but I didn't want to be the White Male dominating discussion amongst this diverse group of students. Besides being a White Male, I'm a big guy with a boisterous voice so I know my mere presence can dominate. I tried to hold back my excitement in meeting Hong and my anxiousness to ask him questions I've had for years. But, hell, I couldn't and I probably did monopolize his time.
At first, I wouldn't sit right next to him. From across the table, after the students had asked a few questions, I followed up on the question I asked him at the screening of Turning Gate. My question was regarding the text in the film, the white-fonted hangul on a lime green background that said things like "Myungsuk tells Kyongsoo that she loves him." I asked him what brought him to include text in the film since it appears to interrupt the flow. Hong said that each bit of text designates the beginning of a new day. He wanted to tell us what was going to happen that day so it wouldn't surprise us. What he wanted us to pay attention to was how it happens rather than what happens.
I followed this answer up with Hong, clarifying if this tactic was similar to what I'd read his intent was when choosing to film Oh, Soojung! in black and white. That is, he wanted to make sure we didn't pay attention to the extraneous and simply pay attention to what was happening between the characters. Hong said that it was indeed a similar tactic.
Continuing this thread further, I asked Hong if he engaged in a similar tactic in The Power of Kangwon Province. He said that he probably had but couldn't pinpoint exactly what tactic he used. I offered up that maybe it was the fact that there are very few, if any, close-ups in the film. He smiled and laughed and said that was possibly the tactic he used to keep people focused on what was happening rather than anything superfluous to the happening at hand.
Hong was very curious how I discovered that there were few close-ups. This put me in an awkward position because it was a long story. I have this friend who is Filipina-American and a lesbian. She had recently begun dating someone new who is Korean-American. While at my apartment with another friend, she confessed to finding many Korean woman attractive. Knowing I had tons of Korean DVDs, she wanted to be shown all the pretty actresses. Thinking the woman who played Misun in The Power of Kangwon Province was cute, I fast forwarded through the film to try to find a close-up of her. THAT'S how I found out there were very few close-ups of any characters in the film. Sure, the story doesn't take that long to read, but it takes a bit to say. So I opted for an abridged version which Hong, as I, found humorous still.
After several questions from the other students present, Kyung Hyun Kim appeared. He was very adamant about my sitting next to Hong. "You came across the state to see this man," he said. Hong was talking to an older couple on the other side of him so I politely waited for further opportunities to ask and tell. When I was able to, I let loose.
I asked him if The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996) was set to come out on DVD anytime soon. He said he wasn't aware if it was and that it was in the hands of the production company whether or not it would be.
Recently, I've been curious if Shiri (KANG Je-gyu, 1999) is really as responsible as people claim it is for the recent surge in Korean Film production and popularity. I asked Hong his opinion on this. He said he felt that it was a big part of the present success of Korean Film. When I asked if Shiri's financial success made it easier for him to get funding for his films, Hong was quick to answer no. Funding his films is still an arduous task.
I took this time with Hong to get some feedback around an essay I was developing around the characters of Eunkyoung and Jaewoon in The Power of Kangwon Province. I was noticing how they parallel each other similarly to how the main characters, Jisook and Sangkwon, do. Hong agreed that such parallels were there, however, he underscored again that he works intuitively and didn't consciously place those parallels in there. They simply arose from within the work, they weren't predetermined. I mentioned how it was interesting how Eunkyoung represents something missing from Korean film, and U.S. and French film for that matter, that is, the non-pretty character. It's not that she's ugly, it's just that she's not obnoxiously pretty like so many Korean female leads. I asked if he'd specifically sought her out for that reason. Again, he said such was not a conscious choice. He just developed the character of Eunkyoung with the flow of the film. I apparently hadn't really learned from the Q&A, for Hong continued to underscore that his direction is nothing special, just a simple portrayal of everyday things in everyday ways.
After he'd talked with some other students, I asked if he'd heard about the U.S. Immigration Office's refusal to give the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami a Visa to attend the U.S. premiere of his latest film Ten (2002) at the New York Film Festival. For the first time, Hong expressed an emotion other than friendly interest. He appeared visibly upset. He said he'd heard this and expressed confusion on why my government would do such a thing. He asked me to explain why. I told Hong that I was upset by this too and that it underscored an arrogance and ignorance amongst those in power in the U.S.. "If they want to build bridges with Muslim countries," I said, "that isn't the way to do it."
I then changed the subject and asked Hong if he'd seen Monster's Ball (Marc Foster, 2001). He said he hadn't and asked me who the director was. I couldn't recall at the time, but I mentioned that Halle Barry and Billy Bob Thornton were in it. I told him that I saw parallels between that film and Oh, Soojung!, that Oh, Soojung! helped me receive Monster's Ball for what it was, a story of ambivalent partners, not star-crossed lovers, a view of his film with which he concurred.
Earlier, a student had asked Hong if he was married. Hong said yes. This surprised the student because, as many critics comment, the student felt Hong's films were cynically critical of relationships ever working out. I told Hong I didn't see him as cynical at all, but saw much hope for relationships in his films. He nodded in agreement as did another student sitting next to him. I mentioned how I see his films as de-sentimentalizing relationships to get rid of the romantic extraneous such as his intent with the black and white film of Oh, Soojung!. Hong continued to affirm what I was saying. I asked if he was familiar with Oprah and the concept of "soulmates" in America. He said that he was familiar with them. I told Hong that his films appear to remove the romanticism of relationships so that we can see them as they really are, not as "soulmates" but as ambivalent partners. Through that, we can better see what relationships are capable of being. We see what relationships can help us transcend.
I told Hong a lot. Although not a journalist, I figured I should be asking Hong questions, not telling him my reactions to his films. But, honestly, I've had a lot to tell Hong for so long. His films have touched me greatly, helped me sort out things in my own life, challenged me, inspired me. Perhaps I should have focused more on asking him questions, letting Hong speak. And I did ask him questions to allow him to elaborate on aspects of his work. But I also simply wanted to tell this man something several times over: thank you.
Perhaps it's corny, but Hong's films have helped me get my shit together. Many assume people go to films to escape. Sometimes I do that, but more often I go to films to confront. I go to confront my self. Hong's films have helped shape me. Writer and Assistant Professor of English at Boston College Carlo Rotella, a huge fan of Blues music, has an article about one of the premiere Blues artists, Buddy Guy, and one of the premiere Blues cities, Chicago, in the recent issue of The American Scholar (Autumn 2002), entitled "A Distinctly Bluesy Condition." When the editor of that journal, Anne Fadiman, asked Rotella if he'd had written of Blues differently had he first heard the music as an adult, Rotella's response sums up Hong, and The Wedding Present, for me. "It's the difference between acquiring an enthusiasm and having the enthusiasm present at the creation of you.." The music of The Wedding Present helped create the me of young adulthood while Hong's films are helping to create the me of my thirties.
All my telling aside, Hong expressed sincere appreciation for my comments and I felt connected rather than disconnected with him when I left. I had gotten over my nervousness and self-consciousness. I was flowing with my thoughts and feelings about his work rather than forgetting what I wanted to say. We shook hands goodbye and thanked each other.
As I was leaving, I thanked Kyung Hyun Kim as well for setting up this retrospective. It was truly a wonderful moment for me with all the awkward nervousness and excitement it provided. I'd say 'mission accomplished' but the journey that Hong's taking is not finished. Nor is the task at hand for those of us who want to increase Hong's exposure to the world.
Irvine, October 2002