Dir/scr: Hong Sangsoo. SKor-Fr. 2005. 90mins
Hong Sangsoo, Korea's master of elliptical urbannarrative, returns with a characteristically slippery slice of Seoul realism inTale Of Cinema, which morphs halfway through into a meditation oncinema, love and reality. The narrative spectacularly wrong-foots the viewerabout an hour in, but even given this perspectival twist, the film is stillconsiderably more approachable than Hong's last Cannes competition entry,2004's Woman Is The Future Of Man, which left many viewers baffled.
Visually and in itsconcentration on a small group of characters, the new film is very close to itspredecessor, and could be once again be fairly compared with Eric Rohmer in hisMoral Tales mode - as the English title apparently hints. Alluring andlikeable as this film is, however, it seems unlikely to break Hong out of hisspecialist niche, and while festivals will remain faithful, distributors mayfind this a harder sell than earlier, reputation-making works such as TheDay A Pig Fell Down The Well.
In the first half of thefilm, a young man, Sangwon (Lee) is passing an optician's when he meets Yongsil(Uhm), a woman with whom he has some unfinished romantic business. They go tothe theatre, visit a karaoke bar - where she gives a shaky performance - andspend the night together.
After narrating a dreaminvolving a girl with an apple, Sangwon suggests - for reasons that remainobscure - that he and Yongsil should commit suicide together. But Sangwondoesn't stick to the plan and - in an extremely funny scene of familyembarrassment - he ends up getting a mouthful from his ferocious mother.
Just as this narrative iswarming up, however, we jump into another story, and learn that everything wehave seen so far is part of a film watched by an older man, Tongsu (Kim). He isa sometime film-maker and an old friend of the film's director, who is nowdangerously ill in hospital.
Tongsu runs into the actresswho played Yongsil (Uhm again) and tries to get friendly with her, at whichpoint unsettling parallels with the film-within-a-film start to happen. Onceagain, there is an encounter outside an optician, once again a character smokesMarlboros, once again we get a sex scene shot at floor level.
Other parallels includematching karaoke scenes and repeated shots of the Seoul Tower, all appearing toconfirm Tongsu's narcissistic, possibly paranoid conviction that the film hehas just watched is based on an episode from his own life.
Hong's directiondeliberately obscures the differences between the 'film' and 'reality'sections. He shoots both in the same style, in everyday Seoul settings, and allthat really distinguishes the two is the differing nuances of mannerism andwardrobe of Uhm's characters: shy and slightly dowdy as the girl, more chic andconfident as the actress (both, however, are lousy karoake singers).
Overall, however, Hong isstrictly economical with his jigsaw pieces, and if we get a sense of why Tongsuis unpopular among his old film school friends, it's harder to fathom thereconciliation scene at the end where, visiting him in hospital, Tongsu seemsto blame himself for his friend's illness.
The film, for all itsdetachment, is nevertheless emotionally intense in the scenes between the twosets of lovers, and in the cathartic, if elusive scene at the director'sbedside. Some of its themes are stated with crystal clarity: the actress says,"We all think the world revolves around us", and the film is very much acritical analysis of the mystique that revolves around cinema, which in certainrespects - as Hong's own style of philosophical realism sets out to demonstrate- is not necessarily that far removed from real life.
The film is stylisticallyspare and measured, Hong's one striking visual trick being a deliberatelyobstrusive use of zooms - partly to signal the surveillance-style observationof his characters, partly so that we never forget we're watching a film.
The city of Seoul is, as thesaying goes, the fourth character in the story, Hong being one of thosedirectors whose subject matter springs directly from a very specific geography.
Though some viewers may findit too oblique, Tale Of Cinema is the work of a director who makes nocompromises elaborating an entirely individual style and set of concerns. Evenso, Hong Sangsoo may need to try out a few new tricks if he is to spread hisappeal beyond a faithful coterie.
Arte France Cinema