The brilliant and beguiling sameness of Hong Sang-soo’s cinema.
It’s an all too easy complaint to make about Hong Sang-soo’s films: they all appear to be the same. Messed up relationships, a copious amount of soju and beer required for basic human interaction, and Hong’s focus on the minutiae of academics and students. Yet, as any self-respecting Hong fan will tell you, his depictions of relationships are so sharp and clever and funny, that it would be churlish to complain at all. Our Sunhi is further proof of Hong’s genius, a brutal dissection of male vanity, and a cheery depiction of a protagonist who doesn’t realise that everything she does causes detonations elsewhere.
Our Sunhi continues Hong’s recent focus on female leads. This time, she’s a student (Oki’s Movie’s Yumi Jeong) seeking a reference from a film academic, Professor Choi. Professor Choi becomes besotted with her. While she’s visiting the university, she bumps into her ex-boyfriend Munsu—he’s convinced that she’s at university to chase him, and his repressed feelings from their break-up come to the fore (not without soju, of course). Meanwhile, a third person, a film director Jaehak, gives advice to the academic and the ex-boyfriend, and he ends up pursuing her too. Sunhi, meanwhile, is relatively oblivious to it all. She simply wants a reference and like many of Hong’s protagonists is oblivious to the carnage she’s causing.
Part of this carnage stems from the reference itself. The reference is so damning of Sunhi, and yet as Hong shows, Professor Choi doesn’t realise it’s damning. While Sunhi recognises that such a reference will basically sink any chances of an American scholarship (what she is seeking), Professor Choi believes it’s an accurate and positive representation of Sunhi. Professor Choi is also motivated by Sunhi not actually leaving, which, as Hong frequently points out, people rarely do. And in fact, Hong’s use of repetition and cycles mean that all of Sunhi’s suitors repeat the reference’s words, thinking that they’re all wildly complimenting her without realising how cruel and sexist they’re being. The protagonists’ cluelessness about Sunhi—and Sunhi’s cluelessness about their cluelessness—provides the comic thrust of the film and its pointed dissection of human relationships.
Our Sunhi is also perfectly composed, and arguably his most rigorous film since Night and Day. Each scene is made up of a single static shot (the occasional ostentatious zoom notwithstanding), and while his protagonists are stuck in one place, passer-bys are moving in and around them. His characters are mostly stuck in interiors, with the pointed exception of the final scene, while the world moves around them. His characters talk of movement, talk of change, talk of new challenges, and yet they’re firmly rooted by their own conservativeness. The best they can hope for is to dig. Hong typically uses food and drink as the one time people break down their walls, but he presents it as pointless and fleeting. People sober up and realise their mistakes, people get too drunk to follow through on feelings, people say things while drunk without realising how the other would read it, etc.
The film pessimistically folds in on itself, almost like a Möbius strip. Hong’s use of repetitions, such as the music (this time an old pop song), the same conversations and platitudes repeated in different contexts, and the use of the same locations with the same interactions, suggest his characters are stuck, doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. It’s almost a mutually assured destruction—we never get the sense of any escape. It’s what makes Hong’s films so compelling and so funny: they may seem small, but they’re so big in showing how people interact, the barriers people place in front of others, and the way people’s self-interested motivations get in the way of how they treat others. If Hong wants to make the same film over and over again, I’ll be watching each time.