The Power of Kangwon Province (강원도의 힘, Hong Sang-soo, 1998)

Power of Kangwon province posterTogether, but separate, could serve as a thematic guide to the work of Hong Sang-soo for whom time is malleable and place even more so. The Power of Kangwon Province (강원도의 힘, Gangwon-do ui him), his second feature, is as playful as one might expect, employing the dual structure familiar from Hong’s later work to set a pair of lovers against each other as they endure the same holiday without ever crossing paths in an attempt to forget their doomed romance.

Jisook (Oh Yun-hong) takes a train to the titular Kangwon province – a popular holiday destination just far enough from the city to make it an attractive place to bury one’s sorrows. Together (but sort of separate) with two university friends she wanders around doing all the regular tourist stuff. For some reason the girls attract the attention of a local policeman (Kim Yu-seok) who starts hanging out with them. Over a tense dinner, Ji-sook argues with her friend over her failed affair with a married man, after which she ends up in an odd encounter with the policeman who is also married.

Meanwhile, married professor Sangkwon (Baek Jong-hak) is in a state of lovelorn depression over the end of an affair with a much younger woman who he claims is the only one he’s ever truly loved. Underappreciated at his current place of work, he spends some time sucking up to his sumo-loving boss but eventually comes to the conclusion it’s all been pointless and he’s never going to get tenure from this rigid old man. Still, despite his wife’s encouragement, he drags his feet applying to another university and continues to mope. Relief comes when his friend (Chun Jae-hyun) invites to him Kangwon for a few days to forget his troubles, but time away only seems to reinforce his sense of emptiness and inability to let go of a lost love.

In truth, we have little implication that the stories of Jisook and Sangkwon are connected at all until they finally intersect save that their movements mirror each other as they each attempt to erase the memory of their failed romance through a sad vacation. Jisook and Sangkwon are on the same train, going to the same place, where they do very similar things but their paths do not cross again – they are out of step with one another, unable to repair the rhythm of their romance but bound by an awkward togetherness just the same.

Meanwhile, a dark spectre haunts them in the form of a mysterious woman and her “fall” from a cliff. Jisook’s disappointing relationship with the married policeman is at least a natural connection, however ill advised it may turn out to be, whereas Sangkwon spends his time irritatedly chasing a lonely woman who got fed up of waiting for him and later walked into the path of another jealous and impatient man. Though in no particular hurry, both Jisook and Sangkwon are constantly annoyed by being forced to waste time hanging around. Jisook’s ballistic attack on the policeman who arrived late to collect her on a return visit to Kangwon is probably misdirected anger at Sangkwon and the illicit nature of her visit, but Sangkwon’s is a kind of arrogance – as if he believes the world exists at his leisure and that he is free to put it down and pick it back up again at his own choosing. Jisook wouldn’t wait for him any longer, but Sangkwon can’t quite accept the relationship is over. He never truly considers abandoning his wife and family to pursue a supposedly “true” love, but won’t give up on the romantic ideal.

Hong positions both lovers as lost, chasing distant ghosts of each other through the spooky environs of the picturesque holiday town, attempting to bury their loneliness in other bodies but emerging with only sadness and resentment. Connection is fleeting, and perhaps unsatisfying in itself. The power of Kangwon province may lie in making a grave for the impossible dream of enduring of love. Jisook buries the smoking embers of her romance even whilst still alight, leaving Sangkwon sadly gazing into a goldfish bowl made for two but now home to only one. Destined never to understand each other, we are all trapped in our own fishbowls sadly gazing out at an incomprehensible world where the only reward of longing is existential sadness. Sound familiar?


The Power of Kangwon Province was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Home video release trailer (no subtitles)

Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Hong Sang-soo, 2018)

Hotel by the river posterTaking an extended sojourn in the melancholy world of European gothic, Hong Sang-soo takes Death to task in the Bergmanesque Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Gangbyun Hotel). Shifting away from formal experimentation to something much more straightforward, even traditional, Hong maintains his love of dualities and unexpected symmetry as he places an elderly poet in the grip of his own mortality side by side with a young woman dealing with the emotional fallout of having been involved with a man whose heart had frozen. Beautiful but barren, the snowbound landscape points to an inner winter where hope of an invincible summer has long since passed, leaving only regret and futility in its place.

Our hero, Younghwan (Ki Joo-bong), is about to do “something foolish” once again. Feeling the icy fingers of Death on his shoulders, he’s invited his two estranged adult sons to visit him in a small hotel where he has been staying at the grace of the management. Meanwhile, he spends his days composing a last poem and gazing idly at the snow-covered vista below which is where he catches sight of a beautiful young woman with a visible wound on her hand. Like Younghwan, the young woman, Sanghee (Kim Min-hee), is here in retreat though hers is of a more immediate kind. Broken hearted over lost love, she’s invited a close friend, Yeonju (Song Seon-mi), to help her through, making a sad vacation of a trying time.

Feeling his mortality, Younghwan’s desire to see his sons is born more of a poetic sensibility and a need to put his affairs in order than it is of any great paternal affection. “Men are incapable of grasping love”, Yeonju intones from two tables over after she and Sanghee accidentally become the only other diners in a quiet eatery not far enough from the depressing hotel. Meanwhile, Younghwan is trying to excuse his decision to walk out on his family when his sons were small through love as a life philosophy, that real love must be pursued at all costs even if it fails. He claims he left the boys’ mother because it would be wrong to stay out of a sense of “guilt” alone, but his lack of remorse for the hurt his individualised actions have wrought makes his justifications hollow.

Hurt is where we find Sanghee whose internalised suffering is neatly externalised in her wounded hand. Literally “burned” in love, she is one woman among many misused by a weak willed and insensitive man much like Younghwan himself. Yet where Younghwan wallows, superficially rejects his responsibility, and frostily tries to reconnect with his sons, Sanghee heals herself with the warmth of friendship, hibernating her way towards wholeness as if waiting for the winter sun. Younghwan sees beauty in the inviolability of snow, but Sanghee sees life even here and she values it. If the magpies can make a nest even in the depths of winter, there must be hope for her too.

Younghwan has no hope, for he knows his days are over. An aesthete, he is captivated by the beauty of the two young women, repeatedly complementing them on their attractiveness and eventually deciding to dedicate his final poem only to them after doubling back on his distant sons to return for more drinks with softer companionship. The poem is harsh and self lacerating, a confession of sorts but one made to a neutral audience and lamenting the oppressive forces of futility he subconsciously blames for an inability to pursue emotional authenticity.

Even Younghwan’s sons are mere echoes of himself – Byungsoo (Yu Jun-sang), the melancholy artist too afraid to pursue female companionship, and Kyungsoo (Kwon Hae-hyo), a dejected middle-aged salaryman too ashamed to tell his father that his marriage has failed. In a piece of parting advice, Younghwa expounds on the meaning behind Byungsoo’s name – “byung” as in “side by side”, intended not only as a literal hope that the brothers would always be close (something which does not seem to have come to pass), but also to echo Younghwa’s two minds life philosophy. One mind capable of conceiving of heaven, and the other to walk the ground. One mind will try to conquer the other but, Younghwan councils, you mustn’t let it. His advocacy for balance in all things only further reinforces his failure to achieve it. Younghwan’s former wife describes him as an “absolute monster with no redeeming human features” which seems like a stretch given the broken, lonely old man before us but might well have been true in his youth full of a poet’s fire untempered by age’s regret.

The ironically named “Heimat” hotel is of course a temporary refuge, existing almost out of time with its old fashioned decor and atmosphere of faded grandeur. Younghwan is staying here for free on the invitation of a fan whose ardor eventually fades. A guest who’s outstayed his welcome, Younghwan is resolved to the coming end of his world, anticipating release if not redemption but lingering on until his day is done filled only with regret for life’s futility and its many disappointments. Hotel by the River finds Hong at his most poetic, but also at his most melancholy in a fatalistic reckoning which finds no escape from its eerie snowbound beauty.


Hotel by the River was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Claire’s Camera (La caméra de Claire / 클레어의 카메라, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

Claire's Camera poster“I want talk about someone. About a man of 25, at the most. He is a beautiful man who wants to die before being marked by death. You loved him. More than that.” Hong Sang-soo channels Éric Rohmer through the aptly named Claire’s Camera (La caméra de Claire / 클레어의 카메라), but does so through the unexpected prism of Marguerite Duras whose poem is recited in French at the request of a sleazy Korean film director (Jung Jin-young) making a clumsy attempt to pick up the titular Claire (Isabelle Huppert) through an otherwise beautiful act of cross cultural interaction. The poem, like Claire’s polaroids, exists in an uncanny space – someone wants to tell us about a man we once loved as if we never knew him who wants to die before he is changed by death. Like Duras’ landmark exploration of the shock waves of imploding romance, Hong offers us life in fragments as Claire’s polaroids attempt to rewrite a half remembered history in order to make sense of a disordered present.

Film sales assist Man-hee (Kim Min-hee) is abruptly fired by her boss, Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee), right in the middle of the Cannes film festival. Yang-hye offers no real reason why Man-hee has to go save that her perception of her has changed. She no longer feels that Man-hee is an “honest” person and as a person who values “honesty” she no longer feels comfortable working with her. Rather than lick her wounds back in Seoul, Man-hee decides to enjoy the rest of her time in Cannes as a kind of holiday which is how she ends up meeting Claire – an older French woman who is visiting the city for the very first time and has brought along her Polaroid camera to properly record the event.

Claire seems to pop-up here, there, and everywhere, dressed in an old-fashioned detective’s outfit of a stylish trench coat and trilby, snapping away like she’s gathering evidence about an international conspiracy. Striking up an awkward conversation with melancholy womanising film director So eventually brings her into the orbit of the three Koreans who are, we later realise, involved in an embarrassing workplace love triangle. Yet each time Claire appears, her photos don’t make sense – she has a photo of Man-hee wearing her trench coat that we never see her take while her other pictures seem generally out-of-order with the timeline as it has been presented to us.

The only way to change things, Claire intones, is to look at everything again very slowly. Ironically enough she offers the opportunity to do just that by means of instant photography, snapping a still frame of a painful memory in order to ruminate and reconsider. She claims she takes photographs as a means of being in the moment – after all, once you take the photo the subject is no longer the same. The act of being photographed has perhaps changed them, but more than that time has passed and we’re all seconds older now than we were before if perhaps no wiser. Yet looking at the photograph, literally looking at yourself from an external perspective, prompts a reevaluation of the past and perhaps changes the course of the present.

There is also, of course, a meta dimension to all this – as he had in The Day After and On the Beach at Night Alone, Hong muses on his own romantic difficulties in casting his real life love Kim Min-hee as a character with a near identical name while also ensuring that So is even more of a Hong stand-in than his usual leads. Man-hee has been unfairly dismissed because of an indiscretion with the drunken director who has had her fired, by his current girlfriend, out of a sense of embarrassment. Both Yang-hye and So are “shocked” by Claire’s photograph which frames her in a sultry pose wearing (they claim) much more makeup than usual, while So, spotting her at a party, goes into a semi-paternal rage about Man-hee’s (not really all that short) denim hot pants and generally “immodest” appearance. Berating her for a supposed lack of self-confidence, accusing her of “selling herself” and trying to catch the attention of men, So “directs” her to be more authentic. Which is quite something seeing as he is currently dressed in a borrowed tux in order to conform to social expectations.

Authenticity, or more directly “honesty”, becomes a running theme from Yang-hye’s instance that Man-hee is “dishonest” to a young filmmaker’s insistence that it’s hard to make an “honest” film. Claire, at least, seems to be embarking on a process of “honest” art even if nothing she says or does quite adds up. Light and bright and breezy, Claire’s Camera is Hong in Rohmer mode, wistful yet resigned and perhaps even hopeful. There’s a reason everyone seems to be so “reasonable” even in the most unreasonable of situations, other people’s feelings are not something that can be debated and are best accepted even if understood only retrospectively. Claire and her camera seem perfectly aware of that, silently observing in preparation for presenting evidence in a self inquisition, but doing so with kindness even in the knowledge that sometimes it’s easier not to look.


Claire’s Camera was screened as part of a teaser series for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series will be Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum at Picturehouse Central on 30th August.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Day After (그 후, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

The day after posterHong Sang-soo, perpetually introspective, is having an especially reflective 2017. Releasing three films in quick succession, each of which star new muse Kim Min-hee, Hong seems unusually keen to turn the camera directly on himself and not least in his choice of star. In On the Beach at Night Alone, Kim played an actress in flight from the fallout of a destructive affair with a married director (a stand-in for Hong who never appears on screen), but in The Day After (그 후, Geu Hu), she plays an aspiring writer and free spirited bystander to an equally messy affair between a married publisher and his younger female assistant. Like many of Hong’s heroes (which often seem to be stand-ins for himself), Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is a cowardly, deluded womaniser who refuses to face his self-involved disaffection in favour of burying himself in youth and prettiness.

Bongwan has developed a habit of getting up early and leaving the house as soon as possible. His wife (Jo Yoon-hee) finds this odd after a couple of decades of married life and decides to ask him about it over a hurried breakfast. She is patient and half playful, but Bongwan is anxious and embarrassed. He refuses to answer, laughing the questioning off until his wife later texts him to apologise for her “overreaction.” Overreacting is something she will get to later, but for now Bongwan is about to have an informal meeting with a potential new assistant. His wife was not wrong after all, Bongwan had been having an affair with a girl from work, Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk), who has now left in order to move on with her life after realising Bongwan is too spineless to ever leave his family.

New girl Areum (Kim Min-hee) is an aspiring writer with good credentials who comes highly recommended by a Professor Bongwan has huge respect for but that’s not why he hires her. He hires her because she fits neatly in the space vacated by absent lover Changsook, is quite pretty, and strokes his vanity by expressing her admiration for his writing even though he mainly does criticism rather than “real” writing these days. Bongwan’s lascivious ways are immediately obvious in his first conversation with Areum which shifts from relaxed interview to personal chit-chat in which he asks her slightly insensitive questions about her family history, grasps her hand without warning and then later stops to remark on just how lovely he thinks her hands are. They change registers from the formal to the informal right away as Bongwan instructs Areum not to refer to him as the president but as a boss (they’re equals, but he’s in charge). He buys her dinner, pushes her to drink, and flirts with her, but Areum is ahead of him and neatly deflects his growing interest.

Areum moves the conversation to a higher level by asking Bong-wan exactly why it is he’s alive. Bongwan, not as much of the contemplative sort as he seems, waffles on for a bit but doesn’t really know, he was born after all and then…. “And then” is the English title of the Japanese novel, Sorekara by Natsume Soseki (adapted into a fine film by Yoshimitsu Morita in 1985), from which the film draws its Korean title. The hero of Soseki’s novel, Daisuke, is the son of a wealthy family whose ennui is so deep that he finds himself needing to place a hand on his chest to check that his heart is still beating. Daisuke had been in love in his youth but never said anything, telling himself it was out of a sense of chivalry towards a friend in love with the same girl. Years later he realises his notions of “chivalry” were all affectation, a deluded way of papering over his cowardice and fear of rejection. That Bongwan eventually decides to give this particular book to Areum is quite telling in his obvious identification with Daisuke who also failed to speak his heart and faced a difficult decision in considering whether to abandon the life of comfort he had always known to strike out on his own in the name of love.

Bongwan wheedles and defers, squirming like a child caught with chocolate round his mouth yet claiming to know nothing about the missing biscuits. His long suffering wife, finding evidence of a possible attachment to another woman, “overreacts” in grand style by physically abusing Areum, assuming her to be the missing Changsook. Hong plays his usual game with timelines, keeping the present uncertain as Changsook repeatedly reappears in life or in memory. It’s clear that for Bongwan these three women are almost interchangeable, no matter what he might say as regards his grand romance with his much younger female assistant who quite rightly points out his extreme moral cowardice in an emotional outburst over an awkward dinner. In a typically Hong-ian touch of meta-comedy, Bongwan may even have forgotten the entirety of the strange day he spent with Areum who later echoes his wife’s words to the effect that his “face looks different”. Areum, however, like most of the characters Kim has played for Hong, eventually wins out in her free spirited sunniness, taking her great belief in the world’s beauty with her, leaving Bongwan to enjoy his black-bean noodles of misery inside in the prison of his own making.


Screened as the opening night gala of the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

on the beach at night alone posterIt might be unkind to suggest that Hong Sang-soo has essentially been remaking the same film for much of his career, but then again his most characteristic approach is one of re-examination, taking one event and turning it around to see how things might have played out differently if fate had only been kinder. On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자, Bamui Haebyunaeseo Honja) eschews Hong’s usual repetitions, but zooms in deeper on its protagonist’s agonising emotional crisis as she attempts to deal with the fallout from a passionate yet inadvisable affair with a married director which threatens to destroy not only her personal life but also the professional in conservative Korean society. The elephant in the room is, of course, that lead actress Kim Min-hee and the film’s director Hong Sang-soo were themselves involved in a messy affair which scandalised their home nation, forcing the lovers abroad and away from media speculation but perhaps not from the uncomfortable questions surrounding their relationship.

Divided into two parts shot by different cinematographers, the film begins in Hamburg where well known actress Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) has travelled to visit a friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), to clear her head and get away from all the fuss at home. Jee-young has been living in the city for a few years since her own marriage ended – like Young-hee she came to visit a friend and subsequently decided to stay. Young-hee thinks perhaps she could do the same but is surprised when her friend reacts negatively to the idea of her moving in. The two women chat and try to talk out Young-hee’s ongoing indecision and emotional turmoil while she waits to see if her married film director lover will really come to Hamburg to meet her as he says he will or lose his nerve at the last moment.

The second half picks up some time later with Young-hee (presumably the same Young-hee or at least a woman with a very similar backstory) in a cinema watching a film. She’s gone home to Korea and to her tiny seaside hometown rather than the harsh streets of Seoul. Whilst there she runs into a series of old friends, many of whom have also boomeranged back from the big city, finding it relentless and unforgiving in its unrealistic expectations of their desire for success. Young-hee is just as mixed-up as she was in Hamburg, but her collection of friends prove less reliable sounding boards than the world weary yet perceptive Jee-young.

Hong’s films have often revolved around self-centred, neurotic men who treat women badly while the women remain exasperated yet resigned and only occasionally hurt. Digging deep, Hong makes an effort to look at something from the other side in painting a picture of the real emotional damage done by the kinds of affairs his usual protagonist may engage in (though to be fair most of protagonists are eventually rebuffed by their objects of affection). Kim’s nuanced performance is raw and painful. Hurt and brokenhearted, Young-hee is angry with her former lover but still, she misses him, wonders how he is, hopes he’ll be alright but also, in a way, that he won’t.

Young-hee is a mess of contradictions – she says she won’t wait and then she waits, she says she won’t drink and then she does (to excess), she says she’s overly direct yet she consistently avoids speaking directly, she says harasses people and messes everything up but all she seems to do is isolate herself and avoid connection, she goes to Hamburg to escape and then feels trapped. Jee-young, a little older, seems to have pinned herself down but says she feels somewhat jealous of Young-hee’s youth, her confidence and capacity for desire. There is a melancholy quality to Jee-young’s conviction that she is “the kind of person who lives alone”, but she harbours no resentment towards her former husband, only a mild sense of regret in having wasted his time. Young-hee may be filled with desire, but has no idea what for.

On the Beach at Night Alone shares its title with a poem by Walt Whitman which, like many of Whitman’s poems, is essentially about the interconnectedness of all things and overwhelming sensation of suddenly feeling a part of a great confluence of existence. It is in that sense ironic as Young-hee and many of her friends continue to feel isolated and alone, playing it safe and avoiding the risk of true connection only to find settling for the sure thing more painful than the emotional implosion of Young-hee’s daringly bold affair of the heart. A night on a beach alone affords her the opportunity of sorting things out, if only in her head, finally learning to stand up and walk away towards an uncertain, but hopefully self-determined, future.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Kawase, Kurosawa, Miike and Hong Sang-soo x 2 Headline Cannes 2017

cannes 2017 posterFestival season is well and truly underway and in the first of two big announcements of today Cannes has confirmed its full lineup. China, HK, and Taiwan are notably absent this year but it’s otherwise a good one for Asian film with five features from Korea (inlcuding two from prolific director Hong Sang-soo) and three from Japan. Scroll down for a checklist by country:

radianceIn the Competition section, Cannes favourite Naomi Kawase returns with her latest movie – Radiance (光, Hikari) which stars An’s Masatoshi Nagase as a photographer slowly losing his eyesight.

Trailer (no subtitles)

She’ll be up against Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix backed Okja (옥자)

okja.jpgThe story of a young girl’s struggle to save her mysterious animal friend from a giant multi-national company, Okja will be streamed worldwide on Netflix from June 28.

Hong Sang-soo rounds out the competition section with the first of two films he’s bringing to Cannes, The Day After. Hong is also featured in the Special Screening strand with Claire’s Camera which reunites him with French actress Isabelle Huppert.

Moving on to Un Certain Regard, Kiyoshi Kurosawa returns to the festival with Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha).

before we vanish poster

This tale of love and alien invasion stars Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, and Hiroki Hasegawa.

Trailer (no subtitles)

Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Mugen no Junin) plays Out of Competition.

blade of the immortal poster

Adaptation of the well known manga stars Takuya Kimura.

Trailer (no subtitles)

The remaining two Korean entries land in the Midnight Screenings selection.

merciless poster

Byun Sung-hyun’s Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Boolhandang: Nabbeun Nomdeului Sesang) stars Sol Kyung-gu in a prison / gang thriller

and Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainness (악녀, Aknyeo) stars Kim Ok-vin as a mysterious hitwoman from Yanbian who comes south to start a new life but gets mixed up with two South Korean guys one of whom also trains assassins.

the villainess poster

Checklist by country:

Japan

  • Naomi Kawase – Radiance (光, Hikari)
  • Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha)
  • Takashi Miike – Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Mugen no Junin)

South Korea

  • Hong Sang-soo – The Day After
  • Hong Sang-soo – Claire’s Camera
  • Bong Joon-ho – Okja (옥자)
  • Byun Sung-hyun – Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Boolhandang: Nabbeun Nomdeului Sesang)
  • Jung Byung-gil – The Villainess (악녀, Aknyeo)