Thursday, May 15, 2014

What's in a Zoom? - The films of Hong Sang-soo

Truth through zooming

Jung Eun-chae and Lee Sunk-yun in Nobody's Daughter Haewon
Until late 2013, the films of South Korean director Hong Sang-soo were almost entirely unavailable in the UK & Ireland, with his work only procurable through DVD imports, downloads and film festival screenings. This regrettable situation was partially rectified with the theatrical and DVD release of Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Sang-soo’s fourteenth feature. For some Irish viewers - this writer included - it was perhaps a first encounter with the filmography of this most idiosyncratic of contemporary directors.

Having since caught up with several other Sang-soo efforts, it’s worth noting that Haewon is one of the man’s more accessible and emotionally generous films, albeit one that reflects many of his recurrent thematic concerns, narrative signatures and stylistic quirks. There’s the middle-aged male film director character - here referred to as Director Lee (Lee Sunk-yun) - stuck in a life of film-related academia and an unhappy marriage. There’s the lengthy scenes of eating and drinking and casual conversation - in this case, taking the form of an almost ten minute long uninterrupted shot of a group of students (and Professor Lee), dining and conversing at a table littered with empty soju bottles. There’s the awkward romance between Professor Lee and the eponymous Haewon (Jung Eun-chae). There’s the repetition of certain scenes, locations and images. Above all, though, there are camera zooms.

You’d struggle to miss them in any of Sang-soo’s recent films, but they’re particularly prominent in Haewon. Very often the only camera movement in an extended scene will be either a brief pan or a sudden zoom or two. The latter usually reframes the shot to cut out superfluous background information and focus on the characters themselves. It’s a simple - and some might suggest distracting - aesthetic decision. But those zooms, in mere seconds, summarise many of Sang-soo’s key ambitions as a filmmaker.

It’s almost as if Sang-soo is shaking the audience, telling them to “Pay attention! This is important.” The phrase ‘nothing happens’ is unfortunately tossed around a lot when it comes to discussing quieter, naturalistic cinema, but especially in Sang-soo’s films the drama and insight is in the nuances of the interactions. A zoom is an elegant and articulate way of drawing attention to this, providing a burst of energy and renewed importance to what should not be dismissed as ‘just’ people talking or getting drunk. Sang-soo expertly uses zooms to enhance the emotional intimacy of a scene - note the intense zooms when Haewon is hugging Jane Birkin (appearing in a brief cameo role as herself) or, later on, when Professor Lee embraces her as they stand under an umbrella in the miserable rain.

As well as amplifying the emotional intensity of any given scene by zooming in, Sang-soo also embraces the potential of the zoom out. If the zoom in focuses on a moment, Sang-soo also understands that the opposite can expand a scene’s perspective. We have to step away from Haewon for a moment to see a particularly memorable example of this. In Sang-soo’s 2008 film Night & Day, the lead character Kim Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) - who has fled to France as he fears the South Korean police will arrest him for smoking a joint (you’ve got to love the comically low stakes of a Sangsoo film) - visits Montmarte hill and Sacré-Cœur Basillica in Paris. First we simply see Sung-nam approaching a viewing spot, but then the camera zooms out to reveal the stunning panoramic view of Paris that greets visitors who climb to Sacré-Cœur. In mere seconds Sang-soo has expanded from the intimate to the epic, stunningly capturing both the beauty of the view and Sung-nam’s uncertain, even lonely place in this sprawling, foreign metropolis. Sang-soo’s frequent commitment to ‘one scene, one edit’ remains unchallenged, and yet the viewer has been treated to a scene that encompasses both the micro and the macro.

Some of Sang-soo’s films - such as Woman is the Future of Man, Haewon and his most recent film Our Sunhi - are relatively straightforward albeit intelligent and subtle character studies, recalling films from the likes of Eric Rohmer or the directors involved in the movement I’m-pretty-sure-we’re-not-meant-to-call-mumblecore anymore. However, Sang-soo is also fascinated by the way cinematic stories work. The Day He Arrives plays out like an arthouse Groundhog Day, with events and days repeating without explanation. His subsequent film, In Another Country, has Isabelle Huppert playing three different characters, each of whom encounters the same people and situations with very different results. In neither case are the reasons behind these unusual cycles explicitly commented on, but they prove fascinating ways of exploring characters and provoking the audience to actively critique the standard ways in which narratives play out.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is not quite as structurally tricky as those two films. However, we can still see elements of formal playfulness here. The aforementioned Jane Birkin cameo sees ‘the real world’ and the film’s fictional characters collide, in a sequence that might be a dream. Later, Kim Ui-sung appears as a character (another university professor) who, Haewon informs us in voiceover, has to answer a phone call from Martin Scorsese. And, as ever, the fact that so many main characters are filmmakers or academics indicates that Sang-soo’s films are heavy in cinematic self-criticism and a carefully controlled ‘meta-ness’.

So how do those zooms fit into all this? Sang-soo’s films regularly highlight a contrast between naturalism and artificiality. This could prove dangerously contradictory in lesser hands, but Sang-soo pulls it off with characteristic elegance. A zoom by its very nature is a mechanical, unnatural camera procedure - a key reason why it’s very often sparingly used (and can be distracting in excess, as in the Duplass Brothers’ films). Sang-soo is smart enough to use them carefully, and as discussed earlier it acts as a way of tightening the intimacy of any particular moment.

However, the zooms also undeniably draw attention to themselves. Especially in Sang-soo’s more structurally offbeat efforts, the zoom can serve as a way of reminding the viewer they’re watching a film, even when the events on screen feel authentic and ‘real’. We even see this in Haewon. Sang-soo teases that a pair of sequences - the Birkin encounter and, ultimately, the entire third act of the film - are possibly Haewon’s dreams or taking place in her imagination. In fact, Sang-soo’s films often feature dream sequences, creating an unstable internal reality that keeps the viewer on their toes, as well as representing alternate versions of key situations. No prizes for guessing how Sang-soo often emphasises these unexpected leaps between ‘dreams’ and ‘reality’ (however uncertain those terms are in this context). Towards the end of Night & Day, for example, a zoom in utilised to indicate a sharp, sudden return to ‘reality’ following an extended ‘flash forward’ sequence that transpires to be one of Sung-nam’s nocturnal imaginings, or maybe even one potential future for his character. It could also be suggested that Sang-soo is articulating a newfound urgency and motivation for a character so often defined by his timidness.

A zoom reminds us to be untrustworthy: cinema is a manipulation. The zooms draw attention to the medium’s unavoidable limitations when trying to capture something genuine.

“This is important,” the zoom informs us, but the zoom itself is also important - a reminder that all this is a construction. Sang-soo’s films are certainly unique in the way he confronts this inescapable contradiction: fiction film can always attempt to reflect some of sort of recognisable truth, but by the very nature is something of a lie. Very rarely do characters in these films explicitly verbalise this strange fact, but it’s all contained and articulated in those zooms. Yes, Sang-soo uses zooms to augment his subtle, compassionate and credible drama & characters, but at the very same time he also draws attention to both the strengths and limitations of cinematic storytelling. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is one of the gentlest, most engaging introductions to these concerns - concerns that recur throughout Hong Sang-soo’s fascinating oeuvre.

What’s in a zoom, then? In a Hong Sang-soo film there’s life, there’s cinema, there’s everything.

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