Filming/No Filming. Notes on the latest films of Hong Sang-soo

Curator's Note

Since Introduction (2021) at the latest, a new metafilmic tendency has emerged in Hong Sang-soo’s meandering body of work or, better still, in the non-body of his works: they are all films that attempt to fathom the non-making or non-ability to make films from different perspectives. Whatever the reasons for their impossibility, the film projects—whether past or future, desired or promised, planned or spontaneous—in Introduction, In Front of Your Face (2021), The Novelist’s Film (2022), Walk Up (2022), In Water (2023), and In Our Day (2023)  turn out to be unrealizable: they demonstrate to us the failure of movies. Even in those films in which the film-within-a-film supposedly succeeds in the end, as in The Novelist’s Film, doubt creeps in as to whether the finished film will see the light of day at all or be kept under lock and key as an unsuccessful or unfinished film. While Hong’s earlier films, such as Tale of Cinema (2005) or Oki’s Movie (2010), each follow programmatically from their titles, Hong’s new works share a logic of Filming/No Filming, a variation on Alain Resnais’s Smoking/No Smoking (1993), which is about nothing other than filming the No Filming, the non-filming.

Hong’s paradoxical maneuver of staging the non-existence of a film as a film has its literary equivalent in the practice of the diary, on which Maurice Blanchot once wrote that it represents a protective device against the actual act of writing and exposes the great work that is to be written to an eternal postponement. Blanchot even goes as far to claim that the writer only keeps a diary of the work that can never be written. In a more contemporary sense, the diary could be understood as a specific technique of procrastination that writes down the fact of writer’s block itself. If you can’t write, you write about the fact that you can’t write. And if you can’t make a movie, you make a movie out of it. Blanchot says the following about the insignificant nature of the diary: “In the diary there is, as it were, a pleasant mutual compensation of two equally important facts. He who does nothing with his life writes that he does nothing with it, and so at least something is done. Those who allow the fleeting events of everyday life to keep them from writing turn to these fleeting events and tell of them by describing them or finds pleasure in them, and his day is already filled.”[1] While in Hong’s earlier films, the film-within-a-film—even if it is usually only retrospectively marked as such—materializes before the viewer’s eyes, the more recent films withdraw this treacherous quasi-object from visualization.

But the fact that the film-within-a-film is shifted into negation does not mean that it does not take on an imaginary existence as an absent figure in the mind of the viewer, who can imagine the unmade film as a possible film in the imagination. As is so often the case with Hong, this virtualization of the film-within-a-film is set in motion by a prior verbalization of the visual, by means of which the idea of a possible film gains contour—a process that is also referred to in art history as “ekphrasis.” Hong only uses this device to subtly undermine it, as the focus is usually not on a finished image or finished film that could then be described verbally afterward, but on a vague verbal or written sketch, of which it is unclear whether it will ever make the leap into visualization. Hong shows us that every film based on a screenplay always brings a proleptic ekphrasis into play, in which the audiovisual form of the film based on it is never determined in advance, unless one believes Hitchcock’s bon mot that filming bored him because it merely realized his mental cinema. In Hong’s case, however, the relationship between the preliminary script and the subsequent film becomes even more complicated because, as we know, there is no “script” or even a Hitchcockian storyboard at the start of shooting, but only a fragment of a screenplay, a rudimentary sketch that’s only completed or unfinished in the process of filming. If Hong’s production method is already based on a radically precarious form of ekphrasis, it’s perhaps not surprising that the projected films in his movies also remain in an unfinished project status.

However, in the films, the reasons for no-filming are manifold and by no means only attributable to the creative block of the filmmakers portrayed, as the unwillingness to act is also rampant among the actors: In Introduction, Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho) is asked by his mother to meet with a famous older actor (played by Hong regular, Gi Ju-bong), who’s been tasked to motivate Young-ho to resume his acting studies. The meeting is ill-starred from the start, as Young-ho brings his friend (Ha Seong-guk) along without prior notice, thus breaking the rules of politeness. After emptying a few bottles of soju in an uncomfortable mood, Young-ho explains to his mother and mentor-to-be why he gave up acting: during the shooting of a student film, his role demanded he kiss a girl.

See Figure 1 from Introduction (2021) in the gallery above.

Out of a guilty conscience towards his girlfriend Ju-won (Park Mi-so), he was unable to play the kiss, as the acting of faking feelings suddenly seemed fundamentally wrong and dishonest to him. As a result, he dropped out of university. Hearing this, the older actor—now thoroughly drunk—loses his temper and screams at Young-ho: it doesn’t matter whether the feelings are real or fake; every touch between a man and a woman is love. In Introduction, the student film does not materialize because Young-ho refuses to accept the fictitiousness of fiction and insists on the sincerity of feelings, that they can never be “acted.” The older actor takes the diametrically opposed position by insisting that even fake feelings are real. While Hong’s films deny the viewer flippant moral judgments of his protagonists, in Introduction, sympathy for Young-ho prevails, who not only suffers under the pressure of authority, but also represents a different ethic of love in art and in life.

In Hong’s next film, In Front of Your Face (2021), the planned movie-within-a-movie fails to materialize not because of youthful sincerity, but masculine contemptibility. One of a long line of Hong’s ridiculous men, director Jae-won (Kwon Hae-hyo) once again stands out in particular: the formerly famous actress Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young, the daughter of director Lee Man-hee) returns to Korea from the United States. At a meeting with Jae-won, who does not hide his admiration for her, she confesses to him over a few glasses of schnapps that she is terminally ill and does not have long to live. Jaewon begins to cry and promises Sang-ok that he will make one last intimate short film with her. He would also love to sleep with her. The tearful promise of an epitaph is followed the next day by its breaking, the baseness of which is drastic even by Hong’s standards. By voicemail, Jae-won takes back everything he had promised her so pathetically before, blaming it on the alcohol: it was just drunken blather, the promise not sincerely meant, words quickly forgotten.

See Figure 2 from In Front of Your Face (2021) in the gallery above.

What we will not forget, however, is Sang-ok’s long laughter, the laughter that breaks out from her after hearing the message, that carries the deep pain caused by this insincere man and the ridicule he so rightly deserves: Hahaha with a vengeance.

If every Hong film is always a repetition and a sequel to an earlier Hong film, then The Novelist’s Film (2022) can be seen as a direct replica of In Front of Your Face, in which Lee Hye-young gets her well-deserved revenge on Kwon Hae-hyo: On a trip to a suburb of Seoul, Lee, playing Jun-hee, a writer who hasn’t written anything in a long time, accidentally meets a well-known director—played by Kwon Hae-hyo of course—who once offered to adapt one of her books, which ultimately never materialized. With visible discomfort, the director tries to explain that it was not him but the “top dogs,” i.e., the producers above him, who were responsible for this decision. It is obvious that this is an outright lie, otherwise, the director would not have hidden from Junhee and confronted her only at his wife’s request. But Jun-hee’s resentment towards him only really erupts when she, the director, and his wife meet by chance in the park Gil-soo (Kim Min-hee), an actress who, for unknown reasons, is no longer acting. When the director expresses his regret over this and claims that she’s wasting her talent, Jun-hee snaps at him: Where does he get the right to judge the decisions and paternalistically patronize Gil-soo? In Front of Your Face: Is this not the double revenge for two failed films? In any case, the situation becomes unpleasant, the director and his wife leave, while Jun-hee and Gil-soo engage in friendly conversation. Jun-hee tells Gil-soo that she has always wanted to make a short film; she wants her to act in it. No Filming/Filming: A writer unable to write, whose last film project failed to materialize because of a cowardly director unable to direct, meets an actress unable to act and wants to make a short film with her, even though she is not actually a filmmaker. At the end of the film, this novelist’s film actually comes to fruition, and Gil-soo watches it in the cinema, just like we, the viewers, see Jun-hee’s film, which changes from black and white to color, like at the iconic end of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966). So what is this short film about, this film where Jun-hee picks flowers and whispers to the camera “I love you”? It is nothing other than a film by Hong Sang-soo, who, standing behind the camera, uses his own voice to say “I love you” back to Kim Min-hee.

See Figure 3 from The Novelist’s Film (2022) in the gallery above.

In this film of no filming, Hong Sang-soo uses his own highly private and intimate video diary, which records real fragments of insignificant life, to fictionalize an ingenious autofictional and metafictional twist as a writer’s film-within-a-film: The realest of life is de-realized into a fiction within a fiction. Hong thus fulfills the diary’s hope of being able to “elevate the meaningless life to the surprising stroke of luck of art and the formless art to the unique truth of life.”[2]  But ironically, even this romanticist life-as-movie-within-a-movie does not get the last word: in the last shot of the film, Gil-soo comes out of the theater visibly irritated, seemingly bothered by what she has just seen. It can therefore be assumed that this short film may never be released and will remain a private exercise for Jun-hee. No Filming: The film we see is negated by the viewer of herself.

Another variation of not being able to make films can be found in Walk Up (2022): Here, once again, Kwon Hae-hyo plays a director, Byung-soo, who meets Lee Hye-young playing a Mrs. Kim, in whose titular four-floor walk-up live several tenants that Byung-soo visits in the Hong-typical simultaneous succession. This time, the reason Byung-soo is tired of making films proves more mundane: there is simply not enough money. Gilles Deleuze once said that the movie will be over when there is no more money. At the end of Walk Up, the beleaguered Byung-soo stands in front of the tower house: he has just received the news that there will be no film because there was never money to begin with. If you group In Front of Your Face, The Novelist’s Film, and Walk Up into a trilogy, then the last can be read as gentle revenge on Kwon Hae-hyo, who in the first film refuses to make the film out of wretchedness, in the second film was unable to push through the promised film against the producers out of cowardice and opportunism, and is now condemned to no filming by the producers. So it is hardly surprising that he is not “up” in the last shot of Walk Up, but rather quite “down.”

See Figure 4 from Walk Up (2022) in the gallery above.

In Water (2023) also continues this crisis of filmmaking: Three friends, cameraman Sang-guk (Ha Seong-guk), actress Nam-hee (Kim Seung-yun), and director Seung-mo (Shin Seok-ho), want to shoot a short film on Jeju Island, but the heavily melancholic Seung-mo has no real idea what to shoot. Once again, money is extremely tight; they procrastinate, in typical Hong fashion—until Seung-mo comes up with an idea after a chance encounter with a local garbage collector and a phone call with his ex-girlfriend (Kim Min-hee). And so, the crew slowly starts shooting. But what emerges at the end of this shoot is once again a “no movie,” as the line between reality and fiction is once again “blurred”—in the literal sense: In contrast to The Novelist’s Film, this suicidal movie-within-a-movie blurs the difference not between film and life, but film and death. In this respect, In Water is one of Hong’s darkest films, along with Hotel by the River (2019), which also inscribes the negation of the cinematic into its radically alienated visual texture: If one is used to low-definition images from Hong’s other films (especially In Front of Your Face), In Water—shot completely out of focus in parts, such that one can barely recognize the actors’ faces—‘lowers’ them even more

See Figure 5 from In Water (2023) in the gallery above.

At the premiere of the film at the Berlinale, some viewers were irritated and wondered whether it was a projection error, but the ‘error’ was simply the film. In Water’s camera looks as if it’s been submerged in water or like a very nearsighted person without glasses. Autofictionally, it’s possible that the blurred images capture Hong’s deteriorating eyesight. Is this how Hong, who has also taken over the cinematography of his films since Introduction, sees the world? Or is the blurring aestheticizing, a pictorial effect aiming for mere beauty? On the contrary, Hong’s “understyle” is decidedly about the inferior quality of the (digital) image. The impressionist painting of a Monet is only invoked to undermine it: Nihilistic impressionism is what you could call the terrible beauty of the final image.

The old poet Hong Ui-ju (Gi Ju-bong again) also suffers from the nihilism of a suicidal death drive in In Our Day: prescribed a strict ban on alcohol and nicotine by his doctor because of his ailing heart,  but tempted by his young admirers Ki-joo (Kim Seung-yun), who is making a documentary about him, and Jae-won (Ha Seoung-guk) to imbibe: Drinking or No Drinking? Meanwhile, Kim Min-hee as Sang-won, who has grown tired of acting and is living with her friend Jung-soo (Song Seon-mi) after a stay abroad, is visited by her young cousin Ji-soo (Park Mi-so), who naturally wants to study acting of all things. As in Introduction, Hong demonstrates anachronistic courtesy rituals between young and old, master and student, which turn out to be dysfunctional despite appearances, as the students never behave as respectfully as they pretend to. No one shows with greater socio-phenomenological precision than Hong how the forced performance of traditional hierarchies is actually an expression of their erosion. At the end of In Our Day, too, there is a final image that is as beautiful as it is terrible, as funny as it is tragic, as ridiculous as it is serious.


[1] Maurice Blanchot: Der Gesang der Sirenen. Essays zur modernen Literatur, Frankfurt 1988, p. 255. (Own translation from German)

[2] Ibid.

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