Every year, sometime after the Chicago International Film Festival announces its schedule, I find myself having the same conversation. A colleague will sigh, "Can you believe the festival isn't showing such-and-such? It got so many good reviews at [fill-in-the-blank] Film Festival earlier this year."
Usually I respond with a shrug, reiterate that no festival can get everything, and note the major movies that are playing. This year, for instance, the festival will host Chicago premieres of Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley and Claude Lanzmann's The Last of the Unjust, the latest works by our two greatest living documentarians.
My only sticking point with CIFF is the consistent absence of Hong Sang-soo movies in the lineup. For more than a decade, the South Korean writer-director has been a stalwart of contemporary cinema, making movie after movie (roughly one per year since 2004) in a wise, witty filmic idiom of his own. His work has played at most of the world's major film festivals and won awards at Cannes, Locarno, Rotterdam, and Tokyo. But most importantly, Hong studied at the School of the Art Institute, which makes him an honorary Chicagoan. You'd think the city would be more eager to claim him as our own.
And yet only three of Hong's ten features since 2005—Woman on the Beach (2006), Night and Day (2008), and The Day He Arrives (2011)—have screened theatrically in Chicago, forcing us locals to watch most of his recent work at home. Thankfully, Like You Know It All (2009) and the Cannes-honored Hahaha (2010) are available on Hulu; and this summer Kino Lorber released In Another Country (2012), Hong's rather funny collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, on Region 1 DVD. Unfortunately, Tale of Cinema (2005) and Oki's Movie (2010), two of the director's most poignant and self-critical films, are harder to come by; and who knows when the two features he made this year—Nobody's Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi—will turn up here.
In short, Chicago audiences haven't been able to follow Hong's artistic evolution—which is too bad, as it's one of the most exciting things happening in cinema today. I can understand why exhibitors might be hesitant to screen Hong's movies, considering how similar they appear on the surface. Every one of his features contains several, if not all, of the following: socially awkward interactions involving academics and/or filmmakers, often taken from Hong's own experience; comically self-deluded protagonists; long scenes that transpire in single takes and with relatively little camera movement; lots of drinking; travel; precise, minimalist compositions; dream sequences; wry, observational humor concerning romantic and professional one-upmanship; and novelistic coincidences. It may sound like the director is simply repeating a formula, yet Hong has found innumerable ways to recombine these elements, using them to meditate on different themes from film to film.
His progression as a filmmaker over the past decade is comparable to Philip Roth's progression as a novelist from the late 70s to about the early 90s. Like Roth's first Zuckerman trilogy (1979-1983), Hong's three films from 2006 to 2009 center on autobiographical stand-ins to contemplate the politics of making art in contemporary capitalist society. These films incorporate the stinging psychological insights of his early features—typically having to do with hypocrisy, envy, and narcissism—to show how those institutions surrounding the production of art (academia, film festivals, production companies) can be corrupted by self-interest. These are cynical movies to be sure, yet they're also some of the director's brightest comedies, with Hong's self-effacing wit softening the blow of his social critique.
The films Hong made between 2010 and 2012 use elaborate narrative structures to consider, like Roth's The Counterlife (1986) and Operation Shylock (1993), why people read and write stories in the first place. These four movies place their formal concerns front and center, as if showing the viewer how fiction comes together. Hahaha is narrated by two friends, who take turns telling each other about their vacations to the same resort town (the joke is that they were there at the same time without realizing it). Oki's Movie takes the form of four short films about the same people, each one taking a different character's perspective. The Day He Arrives presents four different versions of the same day, with Hong playfully switching certain details from one to the next. And the narrator of In Another Country is an aspiring filmmaker who actually revises the film's story as we watch it.
In each of these movies, Hong arrives at new conclusions about the uses and abuses of fiction. Some of his characters write screenplays to exercise control over other people—which is much easier to do in fantasy than reality, Hong often (and hilariously) reminds us. Some characters write to revisit, even revise their own past experiences. And others make movies simply to go to film festivals and get laid. Because Hong is such an expert director of actors (so much so that many of South Korea's leading performers have worked with him multiple times for no pay), these observations always feel fresh. Also, his consistently deadpan style encourages attentive viewers to appreciate subtle differences from film to film, to savor the way this particular actor does the cock-of-the-walk routine or how that particular actress gives a man the cold shoulder. Like Eric Rohmer or Yasujiro Ozu (the filmmakers to whom he's most often compared), Hong has pared his style to its essence so that every detail seems essential.
If you're willing to drop $35, you can order from South Korea an English-subtitled DVD of Nobody's Daughter Haewon. It's one of the best new films I've seen in 2013, and it would have made an excellent conversation starter at this year's CIFF. The movie finds Hong working in a Bergmanesque vein, considering the interior life of a female acting student who once had an affair with one of her professors. It contains moments of pathos so deeply felt—and so recognizably complicated—that they cut through the ironic precision of the director's imagery. This time around, the dream sequences and other narrative devices are fluidly integrated into the main story line—they feel like natural representations of the heroine's subjective experience. They're so natural, in fact, that it's hard to tell which scenes are real and which are merely imagined; but in the end this distinction is irrelevant. Hong imagines his characters in such depth that we recognize our own aspirations and regrets in their waking lives as well as their dreams.