Woman Is The Future Of Man/Tale Of Cinema – Two Films by Hong Sang-Soo (Cert 15)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 88 minutes approx./ 89 minutes approx.
Korean auteur Hong Sang-Soo might be a regular feature on festival programmes and known to cineastes worldwide yet only 2013’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, has had a commercial release in this country. Arrow Academy has delved into Hong’s back catalogue to remedy this, with two of his earlier films presented for the first time in the UK and in pristine HD on Blu-ray!
The first of the two films in this release is 2004’s Woman Is The Future Of Man. Kim Hyeon-gon (Kim Tae-woo) is a film director recently returned from America catching up with his best friend, art teacher Lee Mun-ho (Yoo Ji-tae). During their lunch, Hyeon-gon mentions his former girlfriend Park Seon-hwa (Sung Hyun-ah), whom he left to go to the US, and expresses an interest in meeting up with her again.
Mun-ho is a little reluctant about this since, unbeknownst to Hyeon-gon, he had a relationship with Seon-hwa when Hyeon-gon was in the US which didn’t end well either. Eventually Hyeon-gon’s persistence wins out and they pay Seon-hwa a visit, but instead of a happy reunion between old friends, the bitterness of their intertwined pasts has not been buried or forgotten.
Having seen many of Hong’s later films it wasn’t that much of a surprise to discover that the repetitious formula in his works wasn’t a recent thing. Apart from the clumsy fast zooms, this 2004 effort, Hong’s fifth, is exactly like all his other films, right down to the obnoxious, self-centred male characters being film directors/artists, lengthy chats held over dinner with copious amounts of booze consumed, and ozone damaging levels of cigarette smoke in the air.
Shared between present day and flashbacks, the story of this uncomfortable ménage au trois relationship unfolds as a toe curling tapestry of self-obsession and lack of self-awareness, leaving behind a litany of trampled feelings. Of the three principals, only Seon-hwa grows over the course of the story, beginning as a (literal) victim and ending as the only one ready to accept that the past belongs in the past.
Both men come across as needy but in different ways – Mun-ho is now married with child yet his ego doesn’t allow him to settle down, remarkably scoring oral pleasure from Seon-hwa and a younger student in the same day. Hyeon-gon is the more pathetic of the two, but in his flashback, he took advantage of Seon-hwa’s timorous nature – not maliciously but the lack of empathy after she was raped by an old friend is shockingly absent, somehow getting a shag out of it.
Hardly a comedy but carrying some cruel amusement, there is pathos behind the way this whole sorry saga unfolds with nobody comes out of it looking good or worthy of audience sympathy. Hong ends the film on an abrupt note with everything still up in the air leaving us to wonder – if we still care – what is next for this tragic trio.
The second film Tale Of Cinema from 2005, is a part meta affair that begins with Jeon Sang-won (Lee Ki-woo), an aimless student reuniting with his old flame Choi Young-shil (Uhm Ji-won) after years apart. They get together for a few drinks then end up in a hotel but can’t get it together, so they agree to commit suicide instead.
Suddenly the scene changes to failed film director Kim Dong-soo (Kim Sang-kyung) leaving a small cinema having watched a short film directed by his old friend. Whilst out walking afterwards, Dong-soo bumps into the actress from the film, Choi Young-shil, and tries to ingratiate himself to her, believing she is his “ideal woman” from what he saw in the film but Young-shil is not interested.
In true Hong fashion, this is a catalogue of awkward encounters played out by obnoxious, solipsistic arty types that challenges one’s faith in humanity. The film-within-a-film twist isn’t a new one but Hong is deliberately obtuse with is reveal, literally cutting from one scene to the next, making the audience figure it out for themselves rather than having a blatant cue like a director yelling “Cut” or end credits rolling on a cinema screen.
Both Sang-won and Dong-soo have little going for them other than a pathetic form of persistence, the later coming more from ego than a figure of pity, yet the irony is Dong-soo claims that his friend stole his story for the film and that the events are based on his own life. Thus, when he sees Young-shil about town, he thinks she is revisiting the same spots from the film which are just coincidences, but enough for Dong-soo to convince himself Young-shil is the angel he has been yearning for in life.
All of Hong’s other trademarks are present and correct – the boozing, smoking, eating, risible attempts at sex, and the voyeuristic camerawork – while his infamous clumsy, random zooms make their debut here, just not as fast as in his latter day films. This adds plenty to the idea we are spying on ordinary people yet Hong’s scripts present people whose actions and conversations aren’t so ordinary.
The most damning line however comes from Young-sil towards Dong-soo’s persistence of the film being based on his life: “I don’t think you really understood the film” she says, sticking the knife in and twisting it several times. Then again, this might be true of audiences watching Hong’s works – he is an acquired taste and undeniably oblique in his presentation, but whatever innate beguiling charm he is able to suffuse his films with is, it keeps us coming back for more.
For anyone looking to see another side of Korean cinema following the prominence of gruesome horrors, violent crime thrillers and lush historical epics, the films of Hong Sang-soo are the perfect, if arcane, antidote. Mileage will vary for newcomers or those with less interest in arthouse cinema, while anyone already onboard with Hong’s unique perspective will be satisfied with this glorious looking release.
Korean 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Korean 2.0 LCPM Stereo
Woman Is The Future Of Man
Introduction by Martin Scorsese
Introduction by Tony Rayns
The Making Of “Woman Is The Future Of Man”
Interviews With The Actors
Tale Of Cinema
Introduction by Tony Rayns
Interviews With The Actors
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black