Hong Sangsoo Knows if You’re Faking It

It is a critical truism—and only partially true—that the Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo makes the same movie over and over. His protagonists belong to a particular milieu, which happens to be his: they work in the arts, usually in film, sometimes as novelists or painters. They are maladroit, at times in professional settings, always in personal matters. His plots revolve around romantic anguish and complication. Failures of communication abound. Characters are driven by libidinal urges and petty vanity. Action tends to be displaced to the realm of talk. Awkward conversations unfold over many drinks, alcohol serving as disinhibitor and spur to philosophical rumination. No one ever learns from their mistakes. But to accuse Hong of repeating himself misses the point. Repetition in his films is both subject and structuring device, and, like any artist who works with this formal strategy, Hong finds meaning in the subtlest variations, coaxing compelling moral dramas from prosaic scenarios.

Hong’s other distinguishing trait is that he works very quickly. He has directed twenty-seven features in twenty-six years—an almost unheard-of pace in contemporary cinema—and, at age sixty-one, he shows no sign of slowing down. Quite the opposite: the last nine years account for half of his filmography, and it is not unusual for him to première two movies a year. Hong has achieved abundance through a radical reduction of means. He funds each movie with the proceeds of his previous films, and he makes his films as he goes. After selecting actors and locations, he enters production without a script; every morning, he writes the scenes on the docket for that day or the next. Since he uses much of what he shoots, he can edit an entire feature in as little as a day or two. This modest and pragmatic approach produces works of paradoxical complexity, notable for their breezy irreverence and their emotional and philosophical depth.

Having programmed Hong’s films in New York for more than a decade, I have seen his audience grow exponentially, to the point that he has attained something resembling cult status, not least among younger cinephiles and filmmakers. I suspect this is partly because his way of working is about as close as the industrial medium of cinema can get these days to true independence: no other major filmmaker has liberated himself as fully from the strictures of time and money. Hong and his partner, the actress Kim Min-hee, with whom he first worked on the 2015 film “Right Now, Wrong Then,” travelled to New York this month for a complete retrospective of his feature films that I organized at Film at Lincoln Center, where Hong appeared for four nights of discussions. The week was not without its plot twists: Hong arrived from Seoul complaining of intense pain in his cheek, which we first assumed was a nerve issue that could be alleviated with acupuncture. It eventually became clear that he had an infected tooth that needed to be extracted, an ordeal which required him to soldier through one Q. & A. with a puffy, Novocained face. (Given his tendency to repurpose aspects of his own life as raw material, I would not be surprised to see some version of this medical adventure make its way into a future film.) The following conversation was condensed from the retrospective’s concluding talk and has been edited for clarity.

You’ve taught film for many years, and we see filmmakers who are also teachers in your movies. I’m wondering what teaching means to you. Do you enjoy it? How does it relate to your practice as a filmmaker?

I teach for money. [Audience laughs.] When I went into the classroom, I used to recite a mantra: they are here to hear something from me, and I have to do my best. From the beginning, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make a film that could support me economically. I needed a second job. It was quite easy and ideal for me to have a teaching position at a university. I also enjoy being with much younger people. In my classroom these days, the students are twenty-one, twenty-five, twenty-eight. The way I teach, I listen to their own stories—that’s the good part.

What’s the bad part?

You know—life. Life has many different aspects.

How long have you been teaching? Did you take breaks?

I took a long break. I got fed up, so I quit. After four, five years, I needed money. Luckily, somebody offered me a job.

Now you teach at Konkuk, a private university in Seoul. Is it filmmaking classes?

Animation and filmmaking together, in one department.

Could you give us a sense of how a class works? You told me the other night that you never show your students any films.

My films?

No, any films. Or do you show them some films?

I just don’t like to.

So they don’t watch any films in your class?

I tell them, “I want you to be sincere about making films. And work with true interest. If you find true interest, then you can overcome stupid temptations to copy something or to boast.” I let them write something, read it in front of people, comment on what their classmates said, and then I let them finish and shoot it. That’s all I do.

Do your students ever emulate your very particular way of working? I was talking to a Columbia student who said that he has changed his way of working now because of your process—he doesn’t write scripts until he finds people and places. Are your students encouraged to work this way?

In the classroom, I usually don’t like talking about my films. Sometimes it comes out naturally, but I never encourage it. That way of working comes from my temperament. I didn’t plan it this way. I just had this strong urge to go in this direction. I don’t know if it can be beneficial or right for students. But I’m kind of an old person now. I’ve made some films—they can look at my films and they can try.

So your idea is that every student should find their own method, based on—

I don’t think we have to worry about things like that. Because, if you are a born artist, you don’t have to worry about anything.

How do you know if you’re born—

Just by looking at him. He’s working on something. He never doubts. Just doing something all the time. He never stops.

Two young actors you’ve worked with recently, Shin Seok-ho and Park Mi-so, are former students. They’re the leads in “Introduction.” I read an interview where Shin Seok-ho said he thought he was a crew member until you introduced him to the cast as an actor. And he didn’t realize until after the shoot ended that he was the lead actor.

That’s kind of true. He used to work as a production person. I got to know him a little better and then, one day, I wanted to use him as an actor. Why I choose a certain person is very, very complicated—I can never generalize. I don’t want to work with someone who has qualities I cannot bear. In the beginning of my filmmaking, I was trying to put up with certain . . .

Actors, you mean? Like, egos?

There are just certain things that I don’t want to see. At that time, I thought I had to endure and find the good things, and that’s what I did. As time passed, more and more I wanted to work with people who have good qualities from my point of view, even if they don’t really understand what they’re doing in the film. When I look at them later, in a different setting, their interviews, I don’t want to feel like I shouldn’t have worked with them.

How was it that Shin Seok-ho didn’t realize that he was the lead actor until after the film ended?

Because of the way I work. I finish a day of shooting, and then I think about the next day based on what I shot. With “Introduction,” even more so.

Because it was a three-part film.

Usually, when I cast, I know who the main character will be. In this case, I didn’t know. I was just working on the first part, which, luckily, ends with the snow falling. I thought it could be just a short film and left it there. When I went to the Berlin Film Festival, the thought came up, Maybe I can bring him there and shoot something. They said O.K., and we shot for three days. After that, I knew I had to enlarge it into a feature-length film.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *