At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Hong Sang-soo and Tran Ahn Hung’s ‘love triangles’.
The second year running where Hong Sang-soo has had two films on offer at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Oki’s Movie is at once familiar and deliciously offset from the director’s well-worn interest in drunkenness and romantic horseplay from the pathetic male perspective. While I can’t yet comment on his latest, The Day He Arrives (screening in Auckland only), Oki’s Movie bodes well for what lies ahead insofar as it subtly realigns the waypoints of a typical Hong character study, and crucially, is more coherently structured around the repetition of those points. Those signature elements—filmmakers who drink too much, talk too much, and try to bed one too many women—felt unnecessarily convoluted in 2009’s Like You Know It All, an amusing if worryingly off-key entry in the Korean auteur’s filmography. (With ten films completed since the turn of the century, a highly productive one all the same.) The dissatisfaction at Hong treading the same territory over and over again often comes up in critical circles—perhaps unfairly so—and although he has been perceived as stuck in a rut of late, much like the stunted protagonists his stories tend to portray, the repetitive nature of his filmmaking is actually a strength of his artistic practice, and ultimately, something to be admired and explored.
Oki’s Movie may appear barely discernable from routine—a filmmaker and a film professor vie for the affection of a female film student—and yet via the film-within-a-film narrative it reprises (and multiplies) from Tale of Cinema, an assured female character surfaces and, most radically of all, assumes control of the movie. Preceded by three short films which observe, in flashback, the self-absorbed men (Lee Sun-kyun and Moon Sung-keun) at various stages of love sickness and bewilderment, the concluding chapter, as per the title of the movie, is credited to Oki (Jung Yumi), who is granted the last word on the ménage à trois she has been, uncharacteristically, at the centre of throughout. (Love triangles in Hong’s universe generally orbit around a male figure.) I enjoy the mirror images and sense of déjà vu that Hong’s films constantly strike upon, but in a wonderfully blunt, matter-of-fact turn, it is the contrasting woman’s experience that upstages the tomfoolery of before. Leading up to this revelation, in which Oki compares the two affairs side-by-side in a manner that’s both pitying and coolly removed, Hong presents a circular tour of pompous film academia and awkward post-screening Q&As that might otherwise be regarded as going through the motions. Oki’s Movie is not as laugh-out-loud or hyper-aware of its surroundings as previously apparent, and it differs, fundamentally, from the way other Hong films have foregrounded their unusual locations. (Such as the blustery coastal setting in Hahaha.) But the rules are also being bent and, finally rewritten, by Hong, and he builds towards one of the most unlikely and satisfying endings in an oeuvre that I expect, in years to come, will continue to surprise in small, significant ways.
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Also briefly: Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood, like his tactile, voluptuously shot The Scent of Green of Papaya, stimulates all five senses. Adapting Haruki Murakami’s popular novel, Tran’s emotionally overwrought retelling of the anguished relationship between a nascent college freshman (Kenichi Matsuyama) and a damaged young beauty (Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi in another tortured, suicidal role) is, admittedly, at odds with both the inward Japanese aesthetic and the drifting qualities of Murakami’s prose—something the first screen version of the author’s work, Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani (2004), was perfectly in sync with. However, as inclined as one might be to attribute those discrepancies to Tran’s Vietnamese background and the multiple translations his script revisions had to go through (arduously between French, English, and Japanese), there’s no denying the formal wonders of his film—and boy, is it gorgeous to look at. Speaking to NZIFF director Bill Gosden last year, there was some uncertainty as whether Norwegian Wood would make it to the festival as a DCP projection, but with the flagship cinemas now up-to-speed with digital exhibition, audiences have the opportunity to experience what is the most breathtaking example of HD cinema I’ve seen to date. The great Taiwanese cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping Bin (regularly behind the camera for Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien), and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (who last scored There Will Be Blood), provide image and sound respectively, however it is the sum of those two parts that makes the film something of an out-of-cinema experience: so concentrated are its visuals that it seems almost possible to smell the grass, feel the crunch of snow, and taste the flesh of love-struck youth.