|The director most responsible for Filmbrain's current love of Korean cinema is Hong Sang-soo, and his first four features are still in Filmbrain's list of favorites (with Turning Gate being his favorite Korean Film -- so far!). Back in May, Filmbrain was delighted to hear that Hong's latest feature, Woman is the Future of Man, was in competition at Cannes. When the reviews turned out to be less than stellar, Filmbrain was convinced that the critics were unwilling (or unable) to get into Hong's groove -- to take the time to see exactly what Hong was intending. Now, having seen the film, Filmbrain realizes his suspicions were both justified and correct. (Scour the net for some reviews -- the lack of comprehension is astounding.)|
Filmbrain's initial reaction to Woman is the Future of Man was one of disappointment. At a mere eighty-seven minutes, it felt truncated, as if huge chunks were missing. Perhaps expectations were too high, especially coming on the heels of Turning Gate. Maybe the critics were right, and this was a throwaway film for Hong. Unconvinced, Filmbrain revisited the film two more times in the course of three days, and as a result has fallen under the spell of this wonderful enigmatic little film. If you've never seen a Hong Sang-soo film before, perhaps this isn't the one to start with. Though many of Hong's trademarks scenes and themes are present, Filmbrain can see how this might put somebody off his films for good.
Woman... tells the story of two friends, Mun-ho (Yu Ji-tae, the nemesis from Oldboy) and Hyeon-gon (Kim Tae-woo), who meet after a gap of several years, and spend a few days together. Hyeon-gon has just come back from America, where he had hoped to become a successful filmmaker. Returning as a failure, he visits his friend Mun-ho, who gave up his artistic endeavors years ago in exchange for the safety of marriage and teaching art at a university. It's immediately clear that there is both tension and jealousy between them, and pretty soon the conversation turns to Seon-hwa (Seong Hyeon-a), a woman they both knew years ago. After each of them has their own private flashbacks, they decide to go and visit her. The remainder of the film is classic Hong -- uncomfortable confrontations, drunken confessions, and awkward sexual trysts -- though not exactly as we are used to.
It's been said that with this film Hong wanted to create a work that was self-critical, and both male characters can be seen as two different sides of Hong (he has been both a filmmaker and a university professor) -- as the filmmaker, Hyeon-gon is the over-sensitive, over-dramatic, insecure, jealous type who is unable to properly express his emotions, while Mun-ho is the selfish, cheating, insensitive lover who is clueless about women ("Women shave their legs?"), and cares more about job security than he does his wife. Hong, as in all his other films, once again exposes men as the immature, simple, predictable, woman-chasing dogs that we are. Though Hong has used this dynamic before (two men after the same woman), it's never been handled quite like this. It's more akin to Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors than it is to Turning Gate or The Day a Pig Fell into a Well. In Virgin..., we see two radically different interpretations of Soo-jung's suitor -- one as awkward would-be lover, and one as regular Lothario. This time, we find two men, different in almost all characteristics, but using the same tired, pathetic techniques when it comes to women. At a restaurant, both men make a pitiful play for the waitress (unbeknownst to the other) using a slight variation of the same approach. This idea of repetition with variation is one of Hong's staples, and it is used to good effect here (particularly in the last third of the film).
As Seon-hwa, Seong Hyeon-a is magnificent in her portrayal of a woman who goes from innocent university student to jaded, savvy, bar owner. (Her journey was often paved with misfortune, always brought on by the men in her life.) When the unhappy trio finally meet up, it becomes clear how damaged all three of them are emotionally. Their one night together cannot mend the events of the past, try as they might. The film takes a somewhat unexpected shift in focus during the final third, and it was only on the subsequent viewings that Filmbrain understood why. Though not terribly dissimilar to his other films, there are subtleties here that are unlike anything he's done before.
Woman is the Future of Man is Hong at his most minimalist, and at the same time his most European. Even without the Gallic infused violin and accordion score, the film harkens back to the nouvelle vague, and there is more than a hint of the Rohmer-esque to it.
Though not as satisfying as his other features, Woman is the Future of Man once again proves that Hong is unequaled when it comes to honestly exposing the weaknesses of the male psyche, particularly as it concerns women, relationships, and sex.
Woman is the Future of Man screens at the New York Film Festival on Friday Oct. 8 @ 6:00PM and Saturday Oct. 9 @ 6:00PM.