In Water is Out of Focus, Barely an Hour Long, and The Most Vulnerable Film Hong Sang Soo Has Ever Made

Hong Sang Soo has become one of the most prolific film makers of his generation in the last half decade. This month the New York Film Festival is screening the North American premieres of two of his recent movies, In Water and In Our Day. Last year the festival screened the North American premier of another two of his movies, Walk Up and The Novelists Film, the later of which won Hong a Silver Bear Grand Jury prize at the Berlin Film Festival. He’s directed 30 films since his career started in 1996 but has released a dozen films since 2017, averaging two films a year, all while writing, directing, and financing these films himself. While he has become a fixture of the prestigious film festival circuit, making fans of the likes of Martin Scorcese and working with legends like Isabelle Rupert, I often have a hard time making a pitch on his movies to friends, even the big cinephiles. Hong is often compared to the Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu, with whom he shares a love of static shots and true to life filmmaking that shows characters before or after the real tension point in their life. However, when I talk about Hong to friends I feel the same as when I try and recommend someone listen to the legendary lo-fi rock and roll group Guided By Voices. Both Hong and Pollard are as prolific drinkers as they are artists, and both make art that is equal parts approachable and indecipherable in a way that attracts a legion of loyal lifelong fans who understand their creative vision, and a passionate legion of haters who simply do not get it. 

To take it a step further, neither Hong nor Pollard have an entry point record/film that shows the scope of their vision, you really need to consume a good deal of eithers’ work to have a sense of what they’re trying to accomplish. They both make relatively short pieces of art (Pollard has long albums with a lot of short songs) that pile up into an overwhelming breadth of work. The two create art with whatever technology is readily available, drawing inspiration from whatever happens to be on their mind in the moment, before moving right into their next muse. Both Hong and Pollard have an everyman quality that makes their art extremely approachable to the point where critics act like their work is lazy, ignoring that it takes real skill and tact to come off as casual and easy going as the two so often do. Guided By Voices sounded like they were recorded on tin-cans long before the lofi bedroom sound was invented let alone cool, and there is a flatness to Hong’s movies that can make his work look like an artfully shot home movie. Most of his actors usually look like they’re dressed in whatever clothes they showed up wearing to set. However there is a depth and breath of emotion that the two have buried into each and every piece of art they’ve worked on, ensuring that the longer you are a fan of either man, the more their art will resonate. I wonder if they’d be fans of one another’s work honestly, though at the very least I’d imagine they’d make great drinking buddies.

Hong’s most recent film, In Water, which had its North American premier at the New York Film Festival on October 2nd, might be the Hong-iest film yet, as the writer/director gleefully subverts his own tropes as often as it indulges in them. In Water made waves online when it was announced that it’d be not only barely over an hour in length but would also mostly be shot out of focus, which seemed par for the course for the legendarily eclectic director. Like many Hong films before it, In Water is about people in the film industry struggling to make a short film of their own. Scorcese’s description of a typical Hong movie from all the way back in 2004 continues to hold true with In Water. As Marty put it,Everything starts kind of unassumingly… you’re plunged into the middle of everyday life with people with a history where you infer the tensions of their relationship as they go along.” This time we follow a young actor seeking to direct his first short film who has invited his two friends, a fairly acclaimed actress and a seasoned though inactive filmmaker, on a trip to the beach to help him see his vision through. Hong has an Adam Sandler-like commitment to only writing movies that take place in beautiful beachside towns, and Jeju Island looks gorgeous even when shot out of focus. You might expect some big manifesto on the importance of shooting out of focus from a director as acclaimed as Hong, as it was reported initially that it may be an artistic representation of his deteriorating vision, but in reality it was just a decision that just felt right in the moment.  Hong lingers several times at the scenic landscape, focus be damned, making the island feel like an impressionist painting. 

We start the film in a somewhat familiar scene with just enough Hongian subversions of the usual to let us know this won’t be perfectly straightforward. Our three friends are sitting around soberly eating a lunchtime pizza which the actor cuts into even slices, and while Hong always loves a good meal in his film, it feels important to note that this is the first time he has had anyone eat pizza in a film. When the group later eats sandwiches after doing some location scouting, the older filmmaker comments that he’s had enough bread for a while and that their next meal should definitely be rice, a common Hongian concern. Like many of his films, In Water is equal parts aimless with dramatic moments popping up rather suddenly. However, the tension on Jeju Island is not around an ill-fated romantic relationship as per usual but rather whether or not the actor will be able to actually pull this production off. Where the Silver Bear winning The Novelists’ Film was about the joy one can feel in the spontaneity of filmmaking, In Water is the diametric opposite, showing how stressful it can be to see a creative vision through to the bitter end. The actor drinks and screams through the night as he tries to write his script. Over a sashimi and shochu dinner his actress friend reveals she heard “someone” yelling “Get yourself together!” throughout the night loud enough that she thought a ghost was condemning her for her sins, leading the seasoned filmmaker to ask her why she ever trusted the actor with this project. While location scouting again the next day the actor is inspired by a masked woman picking up trash from the beach, rewriting his interaction with her as the script for his screenplay. After shooting the first few scenes, the actor explains his intentions for the short film with a fervor that reminded me of a less self-assured version of filmmakers’ spec script from Hong’s 2006 film Woman on the Beach, even starting by saying that his vision for the film is, admittedly, “a little blurry”. They would start by shooting the tourists having fun on the beach, showing them as people tricked by society, before moving to the woman cleaning up their mess further down the beach. The actor’s character in his own film within a film chats up and follows around the beach cleaner, eventually watching her disappear. His character is then to walk straight into the ocean, in an attempt at suicide. The actor had written a song about how difficult life is despite us not asking to be born for a friend’s birthday that has already been playing throughout In Water, and he makes a phone call to ask permission from the friend he wrote it for to put it in his film. In Water ends with as dramatic and powerful a shot as Hong has lingered on in his filmography, as the actor walks right into the ocean, music playing, submerging himself to the depths, never to be seen again. After about ten seconds you wonder if you lost him in the blur of the shot, or if he really is submerging himself out there underwater. Then the film cuts to black. So many aspects of this film might lead one to believe that it is a minor piece in Hong’s filmography, from the runtime to the out of focus shots, but upon further speculation it feels like the most vulnerable Hong has ever let himself be. Over sandwiches, the older filmmaker asks his young compatriot why he wants to make a film, and Hong lays it all bare right there as the young actor says, “I want the honor, that’s what I want, though I am not sure I can get it. Doesn’t everyone want it? The money or the honor. I feel the same way. I’m not the kind of person who makes movies to make money, I did not have the skills to do so either. I just want to get the credit. There are so many things I was afraid to try… I want to know if I still have creativity in me.” Hong Sang Soo isn’t making films for fame or prestige or money. Even if the South Korean media hates him, even if making movies stresses him out to the point of psychosis, and he has to self finance everything he does, Hong makes films because it is the only thing that makes him feel truly alive, and he will keep making films until the day it kills him. There is simply nothing he’d rather spend his time on earth doing than making movies with his friends and loved ones. It all couldn’t be any clearer.

Beautiful blurry Jeju Island

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