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A Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo, 2005) 


    Hong Sang-soo, a one-note but compelling Korean auteur, returns to his familiar obsessions with the best results to date in A Tale of Cinema. As with his previous work, this structurally sound film wryly examines the questionable behavior of young men. The first half of the work is a playful, but potent satire of emotional immaturity, featuring Sangwon, a nineteen year-old man who meets, after two years, Yongsil, a girl whom he once had a crush on but never dated. Hong underscores Sangwon’s juvenile nature at every point. Often these observations are casually funny, such as when Sangwon notes in a voiceover that he and Yongsil “had obtained permission to stay out all night.” More frequently, though, the interpretation of the young man’s behavior is less forgiving. For example, a few hours after meeting Yongsil again, Sangwon gets her drunk and takes advantage of her, leading to a hilarious sex scene where the impotent Sangwon squeezes her breast while trying to achieve erection. “Why insist when it doesn’t work?” she asks, not really comprehending that he’s trying to assert his manliness. His infantile nature is obvious, but Yongsil, who is about his age here, is nearly as immature himself, so it’s accepted and participated in. Unfortunately, though, Yongsil, like most female characters in Hong’s work, is a subservient token of womanhood, who mostly exists for Hong to demonstrate the immaturity of his male characters. Even if Hong scorns his male characters, he’s clearly more interested in them.


    In any case, when midway though the film we leave Sangwon and Yongsil and begin to focus on characters who are a few years older, the film grows more critical still of its characters’ immature tendency to self-dramatize. Roughly forty minutes into this ninety-minute film, the movie reveals that what we’ve been watching was, in fact, a short film programmed in a retrospective of a young filmmaker named Yi Hyong Su. Hong introduces at this point to an audience member of that film’s screening: Tongsu, a young ex-classmate of the director.  He’s returned to his hometown to fete the director, who has been stricken with an illness. With a few hours to kill between the film screening and the reception, where he’ll meet some old film-school cohorts, Tongsu begins to wander the streets, and before long he runs into an old buddy who now has a wife and two kids. There’s tension in the lunch they share, with Tongsu still clearly focused on a past that now seems foreign to the young couple. Slightly older, but no more mature, than the protagonist in the first half of the film, Tongsu’s behavior is now deemed socially unacceptable by those his age. He encounters Yongsil, the actress from the film he just watched, on the streets, and begins to follow her, eventually introducing himself as a friend of Yi. Somehow convinced that the film he just watched is based on his own life, Tongsu idealizes Yongsil and begins imposing himself upon her in an attempt to recreate the romantic mood of the film that he’s just viewed.


    In this part of the film, Hong takes us into “reality”, and behavior that once seemed almost cute on screen is now painful to watch. In a clever inversion of expectation, the section of the film detailing a suicide pact plays as comedy, while the one showing a courtship is far more tragic. Pulled in by the false reality of the film he’s seen, but completely oblivious to its critical appraisal of its protagonist, Tongsu’s distorted denial of reality becomes obvious. With a queasy, slightly creepy vibe, many of the scenes from the first part of the film are mirrored in the second. Tongsu’s bitter resentment toward Yi becomes apparent, and the relationship that he and the pained Yongsil have reveals itself as a sick co-dependence instead of the love that he professes. “I don’t think you really understood the film,” Yongsil says after he proposes a suicide pact like that in the film. Thanks to Hong’s unforced style, I don’t think he’s the only one who might misread it, but for those who are able to suss out Hong’s meaning it, it’s a movie of unusual assurance.




Jeremy Heilman