Hong Sang-soo is the director most responsible for Filmbrain's interest in contemporary Korean cinema. As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Filmbrain still considers him the best and most interesting Korean director working today. Hong wears his western influences on his sleeve, but the oft-made comparisons to Rohmer and Antonioni are perhaps a bit superficial. His method of exploring human nature and its shortcomings is distinctively his own. His depictions of relationships between men and women (and the reasons men want women, and vice-versa) are honest to the point of being painful. Unlike Rohmer, Hong isn't interested in creating moral parables, and if his films contain ambiguous endings, it's only due to the nature of the relationships he depicts. The one film of his that stands out from the others in this regard is his second film, 1998's The Power of Kangwon Province, which explores the lives of a man and a young woman shortly after their illicit affair has ended. Early on in the film, a minor character is shown reading the Rimbaud poem Sensation, which pretty much sums up the tone of the film:
I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing
The film is divided into two parts, covering the same period, but from the individual perspectives of the man and the woman. As the film opens, Ji-sook is on a crowded train from Seoul to the Kangwon Province, an extremely popular (and overcrowded) getaway that has both beautiful beaches and dramatic mountain vistas. She has just ended her affair with her married professor, Sang-kwon, who also happens to be on the train, though neither realizes that. Meeting up with a couple of girlfriends with the intention of getting over him, she instead winds up in the bed of another married man; a police officer they meet in the mountains. Though she begins an affair with him, she's clearly unable to let go of Sang-kwon and move on with her life.
The situation is much the same for Sang-kwon. At a crossroads career wise, he finds himself unable to make a commitment, even with pressure from his wife. Needing to escape, he heads to Kangwon with a friend, but the trip does nothing to help his situation. After some reluctant sightseeing the two wind up with a couple of prostitutes, and in one of the most un-erotic sex scenes ever, Sang-kwon winds up being badgered by her to hurry up and finish. The events that occur that night in Kangwon might as well have been in Seoul, and Hong appears to be implying that any benefits of leaving the city for the countryside are made redundant by the inclusion of big city distractions -- bars, nightclubs, prostitutes, etc.
Both Ji-sook and Sang-kwon's segments contain a scene that has become somewhat of a trademark for Hong -- a lengthy meal, many bottles of soju (a sweet potato vodka), and drunken confessions/truths that end up in either tears or a fight. (Hong demands that his actors are actually drunk in these scenes -- and it shows!) Though not as dramatic as the equivalent scene in his previous film, The Day a Pig Fell Into a Well, they are both a bit uncomfortable, and Hong's stationary camera gives it a somewhat voyeuristic quality.
The film ends with Sang-kwon and Ji-sook meeting again some months later, and their encounter is disturbing, degrading, and more than a little pathetic. The breakup left the two of them in a state of dissatisfaction with everything, and though both are shown waiting for something -- anything -- to help them rediscover some joy in life, the final scene shows that neither has succeeded. Though one could argue that Sang-kwon is better off situationally, emotionally the two are equally despondent. Filmbrain isn't sure what 'power' Kangwon holds, but it clearly isn't the power to heal.
If you've ever suffered from an unpleasant breakup (and let's face it, who hasn't) there's much in the film to identify with, and though we (hopefully) may not have made the same mistakes as Sang-kwon and Ji-sook, Hong still succeeds in churning up the kind of feelings that are better left unchurned. This is the type of film Filmbrain loves the most -- one that practically forces you to reflect on the less-than-stellar moments of your life.