Already one of the most fêted Korean filmmakers of the modern era, Hong Sang-soo last month picked up his biggest prize to date, the Golden Leopard from the Locarno International Film Festival. With dialogue-based films that can repeat the same situation and echo the same themes over and over again, his work is a far cry from the stylistic offerings of Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook. So what is it that people find in his work? It’s a hard question to answer, as viewers’ reactions to his work come from a personal place, but when delving into his catalogue, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Being a Hong Sang-soo fan, like I am, requires a lot of patience. Though he has now made 17 films (with an 18th already underway), Hong isn't the kind of filmmaker you can binge on, so going through his filmography takes time. The reason is not because they’re dense or because they bear so many similarities to each other, but rather because each of his films is an experience—a measured rumination on our desires and egos. It takes time to unpack them and, if you let them in, they stay with you, simmering over time.
Watching his work also requires that you pay careful attention to details. Despite the seemingly casual and sometimes stuttering nature of the endless conversations that link each chapter of his oeuvre that make his work appear to have an attitude of indifference permeating it, the reality is, nothing is ever left to chance. Hong has a reputation for fiddling with scenes right up until the morning of any given shoot, but what is on the page is always exactly what ends up on screen. From the hesitations and awkward gestures to the fumbled words and hushed mutterings, everything is a piece of a greater whole, each layer adding meaning, texture or nuance. Entering his world means allowing his films to act as mirrors. We find pieces of ourselves scattered throughout his narratives, as they reflect our anxieties, our pettiness and our constant need to gauge our selfworth. The filmmakers and professors often featured in his films may only reflect a small section of society, but as characters with plenty of time for idling about with no real sense of urgency, they are stripped of everything that would distract us from Hong’s eerily familiar portraitures.
All that said, it’s not easy to become a fan of Hong Sang-soo and there are many who have found it difficult to warm up to his work. To do so, some recommend beginning at the start, with his most conventional film The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996). Others point to his more humorous fare as a good entry point, such as Oki’s Movie (2011). Personally, I’d recommend his latest, Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), for its humor, depth and effortlessness. It’s the perfect encapsulation of his work. Either way, if it doesn’t click straight away, do not fret and remember: be patient, keep your eyes open and don’t be afraid to examine yourself.