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Idiocies. A Poetics of the Real

(1) Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja [On the Beach at Night Alone] (2017)

In Hong Sang-soo’s work there is a constant trait, which is neither really stylistic (it’s not a matter of form), nor frankly thematic (it’s not a matter of content either), and which returns, like a butterfly – and even, as its course is erratic, like a moth, the ultimate uncatchable insect. You will forgive me for calling this trait idiocy, a striking word that somehow touches the singular art, so difficult to describe in sentences, of this not exactly talkative filmmaker.

Why ‘idiocy’? First of all, in the regular meaning of the word, which aligns it with the unreasonable or the arbitrary: “Everything that happens is, anyway, ‘idiotic’. Because we need to understand the term in the broadest sense: stupid, without reason, like the infinity of possibilities; but also simple, unique, like the totality of the real.”1 What happens in Hong’s stories, so true and amusing, is most often idiotic in that sense: a hodgepodge of relationships, misunderstandings and improbabilities. Think of the script of Hahaha (2010), in which two old friends endlessly drink makgeolli, each telling his own summer adventure (in black and white), without ever noticing that it’s the same (in colour). In addition, as Clément Rosset underlines, idiocy also resembles idiom, even the idiomatic: that which is typical of someone, of a singular being, that which makes someone different from all others and which is ineffable almost by definition. The misfortunes of Hong’s not so heroic heroes are banal, to the point where, due to characterizing them, and no one else’s misfortunes, they cease to be so. Drinking too much makes you puke (Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors [2000]), that makes sense, but having a relationship with a married woman does not necessarily lead to being slaughtered in the company of another woman (The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well [1996]).

I am, however, aiming at yet another aspect of idiocy. First of all, I think of certain details – of their incongruous but yet necessary presence, of their opacity and arbitrariness, of their profound insignificance and their indefinite resonance – in short, of little things that don’t really make the narrative machine or the semiotic machine of films work, but that open them up to something unknown, which can have no other name than the real, if by the real we mean that which we will never know because we are too busy dressing it in an imaginary reality. I will give two examples that will allow me to explain this, one from an older movie and one from a recent movie.

1. The Power of Kangwon Province (1998): leaving with a friend to tour this tourist-province par excellence, the hero puts a secretary at his university in charge of taking care of two goldfish. They are placed in a bowl that is well exposed to daylight and protected from the sun by a sheet of paper. The movie ends with the bowl, moved to a cluttered nook; there is only one fish left. What to do with this detail? I have several solutions: I can call it insignificant, irrelevant to the course of the story, and forget about it. I can, on the contrary, try to semiotize it at all cost, try to find a clue for an unnoticed enigma, in line with the idea of Raoul Ruiz’s ‘secret film’ or Peirce’s abduction.2 I can, more simply, make it mean something in another sense, that of metaphor, reading into it something like the discrete poeticization of a kind of melancholy. But I can also – and my hypothesis is that this is the most Hongian position – refuse all of these interpretations and be content with revealing it, with seeing it exist, accepting that it doesn’t signify anything, at least nothing specific. The fish were there, I saw them, they had a destiny, which doesn’t concern me and of which I will never know if or how it concerned or affected the characters. This detail, both figurative and narrative, puts me in front of what I, both in my everyday life and in film, continue not to see: the real – which precisely does not make sense, exists outside of me, only concerns me by accident or by refraction and therefore does not enter into my scenarios of reality.

2. Like You Know It All (2009): animal after animal (and again sticky and cold), we can see a little green frog incongruously appear by the swimming pool, in two stages: seen by the hero but not by his companion (nor by us: the frog is off screen); then seen by us, but possibly not by anyone in the story. A moment of pure image, entirely made of the little apple-green creature’s swimming gestures – unless we need to establish a link with the contemptuous remark uttered shortly after by the hero about a rival film director: “The frog has forgotten his life as a tadpole.” Or, even better, the little yellow-green caterpillar that happily moves forward, like an animated caterpillar, making a big loop with every ‘step’: it arrives unexpectedly at the feet of the hero’s friends who are upset by the mysterious betrayal by their friend and are hugging each other. The caterpillar is there, fresh and yellow at their naked feet – and it does not make sense. (Conversely, think of the earthworm of Weekend (1967), and the deep metaphysical thoughts it inspired in Jean Yanne and Mireille Darc.) Fleeting images - loosely connected to the ironic melancholy that bathes the whole movie. Such idiotic images, for once, that we hesitate to say it.

Of the ‘idiotic’ type, as well, but more profound, I would consider the mineral that the hero is watching when his friend’s wife is in the shower. It’s a volcanic stone; we recognize it immediately. What is it doing there? Why does the character grab hold of it? Is he thinking of the stone? Or is he already thinking of the young woman - naked next to him? The perfect idiocy of this detail is that we will never have an answer to these questions, not even to the more elementary but more important question for the story: What happens after his empty look at this volcanic stone? We are, with this question, at the heart of Hongian aesthetics and ethics: while the director Ku watches the stone without seeing it, the music starts; a panning shot horizontally leads us to the glass door of the shower, then vertically to the underwear left on the floor by the young woman. Cut. Ku leaves his friend’s house, the wife doesn’t say goodbye, a zoom frames the window of her room; we seem to hear muffled sobbing. A couple of shots later, Ku receives an offensive letter from his friend, suggesting he has attacked the young woman. Finding the accusation unjust, he goes to his friend, who welcomes him by throwing the famous pumice stone at his head, threatening to knock him out. This is already a beautiful coincidence – unless the stone has, mysteriously, played a part in the alleged abuse of the woman. Has there been any abuse, in fact? Is it not the young woman who has misinterpreted whatever gesture about which we will know nothing? Nothing: it is the only word that fits, and that’s all that will be clarified by the movie – with only one, idiotic exception: the relationship between the volcanic stones and the abduction of a friend’s wife.

People will say that, like with the goldfish, metaphors could explain everything: if these stones are volcanic, maybe they have a contagious power, transforming the non-character Ku into a sexual volcano. Possibly. Another way of interpretation, more underground, more Korean as well, seems more urgent: this volcanic stone is not just any stone; it is a stone of Jeju, the big island in the South of the country with its sunny climate, a tourist and holiday island, where the hero coincidentally goes to next and which will be the place of his second pitiful conquest. These stones are famous; they are sold to visitors, and we see them after we are led there. They are everywhere, including in the form of traditional statues, and at a certain moment the hero lies down on a bed of volcanic tuff. When he goes to another ‘friend’ for the first time, whose wife he is going to seduce, he sees the exact double of the first stone among other stones. The metaphor seems to maliciously insist: lava stone = desire for adultery. Both appearances, however, are given as a pure whim of the movie, plunging the character into the depths of silent perplexity. This hesitation of the movie, the story and the spectator in their wake, is what I mean by idiocy.

The status of detail in the images is ambiguous. Cinema, and photography before that, has captured these accidents of reality, these little pieces of raw reality that have insinuated themselves without ever being asked, and it has quickly learned to domesticate them. Barthes once theorized this, through the studium/punctum couple, but his theory univocally took the side of the spectator, of one spectator even: himself. As a result, the interesting detail, the punctum, depended on everyone individually (what grabbed him, he didn’t care if it grabbed me too); and the detail willed by the photographer, the studium, was relegated to the realm of mastered meaning, interesting for sociologists or historians, but not for him, Roland Barthes.

Barthes’s intuition, however, remains suggestive, including in cinema. The studium is very simple, and there are enough movies that are quick to elevate details into clear signs by emphasizing them, by indexing them, the way silent film did by necessity and the way a family of filmmakers, with Hitchcock as its patriarch, did by inclination. On the side of the punctum, things are less clear. It’s up to me to identify a certain detail and turn it into a clue for interpreting the movie. Oeuvres like Lynch’s or Kubrick’s have been a goldmine for researchers of this type of detail – I need only remind you of the thousands of pages of more or less delusional interpretations of 2001, of The Shining or of Lost Highway. Or, to stay closer to Barthes’s lesson, it’s up to me to look for ‘poignant’ details that make no particular sense, but will silently report through a certain presence, through a certain incongruity as well, without ever really engaging in a systematic reading: in other words, little events of the visible.

If the Hongian details of which I speak seem particular to me, it is because they are a bit of both. Details of the author, because they are willed by the mise en scène and there for a reason; and nevertheless also event detail, in the fluctuating sense, giving a feeling of accidental presence. Hong doesn’t index anything; the details are there, few of them emphasized. The goldfish in The Power of Kangwon Province (1980) and the pumice stone in Like You Know It All (2009) are not hidden, they cannot escape any minimally attentive perception; but they can, and that is their subtlety, escape what I would call narrative attention: even when we have perfectly seen them, we can right away assign them a status of total unimportance, the status of that which “does not mean anything”. These details, precisely, don’t mean anything; but it is up to me (as a spectator) to decide if they nevertheless say something or not, knowing very well that whatever they say will possibly not have any impact whatsoever on the narrative or the story, that it will only be – but it’s not nothing – a small vibration to be felt.

The list of these details in most of Hong’s movies is endless. Hahaha (2010) is full of picturesque notes, carefully chosen – starting with the fact of focusing everything on the port, which is only a small part of the city of Tongyeong. The structure of the story, which expertly intertwines two points of view on the same history, as is often the case with Hong, creates more or less discernable little chains with the object-details. At his second meeting with Seong-ok, the young woman who earns a living as a tourist guide of a historic monument, one of the boys offers her a cheap bracelet, a worthless piece of jewellery (in the interior monologue, he admits it was the only thing he had with him). Nothing more is said, and we wouldn’t think of it anymore, if it wouldn’t rhyme with another gift, given by the girl to her lover, the young unscrupulous poet: a flower pot, which he refuses – and which we can fleetingly spot on her terrace later in the movie, among other similar things. We then understand that she has done the same thing to him as what the hero did to her, offering what she had, something without any value. Likewise, we could ‘concatenate’ the girl’s little dog with the orange ears and the dog of the second protagonist’s uncle, both seen only once, not playing any role, not even barking. And, even more idiotic, pure hapax legomena, like the bunch of grass used by the young woman, without ever seeing it coming, to hit the boy she suspects has bad intentions. Or, in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013), it would be the detail of the cigarette: the first time, a thin white cylinder, rolling by itself until it coincides with a white parking line; but there will be at least three other cigarettes, two of which are intentionally stubbed out, and that way we see a detail softly pass from punctum to studium...

A persistent commonplace, in France at least, calls Hong the ‘Korean Rohmer’ – a beautiful alliteration, though pretty far from the critical truth. What’s Rohmerian in Hong is easily identifiable and has to do with two thematic features, both indeed connected, just like in his supposed model: the love for young girls and the love for sweet-talking speech; and a narrative feature – the passion to confuse the spectator. “We are always deceived, that could be the proverb that covers all of the movies by...”:3 it suffices to replace Rohmer with Hong in this excellent short description by Pascal Bonitzer to have the key to the rapprochement.

No sooner said than questioned: the differences are abundantly clear, starting with sex, which is performed all over in Hong’s work, especially in his first movies (they all included pretty raw bed scenes); continuing with booze, almost always a pretext for the national sport of systematic inebriation; concluding with language. While Rohmer, at least in the Contes moraux and also in the Comédies et proverbes, committed himself to a very written way of talking, Hong’s dialogues are pure talking, in an ornate vocabulary, willingly offensive, with a loose syntax in an uncontrolled flow, sometimes too fast, sometimes hesitant. In other words, if there is any Rohmer in there, he has decided to let it all slide.

Let’s forget Rohmer and return to the folding and unfolding of Hong’s cinematographic narrative and to his emerging points – which is my subject. The folding and unfolding is another commonplace about Hong, but with reason. From his early movies onward, he has developed a narrative framework, loose enough to be strongly varied from one film to the other, strict enough, however, not to go unnoticed: the framework of the double. The majority of his movies tell a story from two points of view – either literally the same story, seen by the eyes or the mind of two characters (Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Hahaha, Right Now, Wrong Then [2015], already The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well) or two connected or parallel adventures, with identical structures (The Power of Kangwon Province, Like You Know it All, Woman on the Beach [2006], Tale of Cinema [2005]...). A framework which enables mistakes, misunderstanding, surprises, the unspoken – in other words, all the ways to mislead the protagonists and the spectator. I shall not go back over this, as this has often been described, commented on and Rohmerized.

It is, however, worth taking a closer look at how these surprises are produced, the unspoken and the misunderstandings. There is, obviously, the work by the screenwriter, which consists of making lines cross or not cross, rhyme or silently respond to each other. But there is also, and more interestingly for the aesthetics of idiocy that I try to discern, everything that has to do with appearance. Cinema in general is potentially an art of appearance, an art of emergence, this is known to us at least since Astruc.4 That is the whole problem in Hong’s cinema: the capacity the image has to make me see something, and to make me see it in a singular mode, that of appearance.

Appearance, the incongruous details, the opaque and idiotic ‘points’ of representation. Appearance, in another sense, a variety of the ellipsis loved by Hong, which consists of starting almost anew a new storyline, possibly prepared by what precedes it, but always throwing the spectator a curveball. He has not invented this abrupt style of editing, but he has practised it from his first feature film onward. In The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, the husband, who we knew existed without having seen him, without knowing anything about him, appears on the edge of a cut, without any commentary or indication. It’s up to me to figure out and conclude that it had to be that character who so far only existed as a series of allusions, as a virtuality.

A sudden change of the storyline is everything but an ‘idiotic’ event in the meaning I proposed in the beginning. It is, on the contrary, a deliberate gesture, which we attribute in narratological terms to the enunciator of the movie and in terms of origin to the authors of the script and to the director (Hong combines both roles). It is about showing his control when manipulating the spectators, who are forced to follow the detours and jumps imposed on them whether they like it or not. But here we need to return to my descriptions of singular ‘idiotic’ events, because they are clearly also planned, accepted or authorized, included in the story by its author. It is even what distinguishes them from the pure and simple coincidence, which happens all the time in movies because it is impossible to control everything, but which does not have a significance – except for the ambiguous one of the real. For example, while the young unfaithful wife in The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well waits for the bus to go to her lover, we see behind her a swarm of pigeons that seem to follow a passerby; but this vague appearance remains a distant background; it does not get the status of an event on the basis of one simple criterion: no one looks at them. On the contrary, the goldfish and the pumice stone were looked upon by a character, then by us, and if I may say so, by the story – the way the little black insect at the beginning of The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well trying to escape from a pot is looked at, or the way, later on in the no-tell motel, the cherry tomatoes are carefully washed in close-up...

I therefore seek, in Hong’s style (of story, mise en scène), that which makes an event, by being obviously included in the story, but without having any meaning or functionality, and therefore creating a disruption, less of the story itself than of its ontological status. All of these accessories (goldfish, lava stones, insects, tomatoes, and others) are included in the diegesis they have invented and fabricated, but they stand out by their inutility and their fundamental strangeness. This is how, in my eyes, they are part of the same system of story disorder as the sudden connections, and more specifically, those connections that indicate (or rather, don’t indicate) dreams.

There is a lot of dreaming in Hong’s movies, usually without warning and with quite a heavy content. In Like You Know it All, the director Ku is invited by a friend, drinks too much, and falls asleep on a bed embracing a huge white stuffed animal. Suddenly, crying and moaning in the next room wakes him up; intrigued, he gets up, opens the door and discovers the young wife crying that her husband has unexpectedly died. She lashes out at Ku, accusing him of having murdered his friend by making him drink too much; then, thanks to his consoling reassurance, she changes her mind and falls into his arms. They throw themselves on the bed of the guest room to embrace... And cut, Ku wakes up hugging the white stuffed animal, teaching us (or confirming to us) that it was a dream, which is corroborated by the friend’s snoring off screen. (It is right after this dream that Ku will see the fatal Jeju stone.) In The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, we are suddenly and unexpectedly transported to the married couple: the husband, wearing the traditional white cap of Korean mourning, receives the guests who come and pay tribute to the deceased, whose portrait is barred in black and is sitting on the table; she is in another room, lying on her futon. The guests comment on her sudden death – until the shot in which she suddenly moves, wakes up, and puts an end to the whole macabre mise en scène: it was a dream.

There will be plenty of other dreams. The one of the simpleton hero in Hahaha, in which he is, unexpectedly, without even the smallest indication of a system change, on Hansan Island, close to Tongyeong, and meets the famous hero who is commemorated all over Hansan, admiral Lee Shun-shin, and who prevented the Japanese from invading the country at the end of the 16th century through his genius strategy. And what does this great figure do? He offers the hero some advice on life: to see through appearance, and to see the good sides of things and people; he then drags him along towards the sea and they look at it in unison – and then the boy wakes up. The admiral’s theatre costume had not left any doubt, but the shock remains: I, the spectator, also wake up at this point of connection. That is to say: I need to change my view and tell myself explicitly that it was indeed a dream. In Nobody’s Daughter Haewon it is the dream with Jane Birkin at the beginning of the movie (wishful thinking, obviously) and most of all the structure of the end, in which we never really know where the dream begins. Or, in Woman Is the Future of Man (2004), the more down-to-earth dream of a professor who stumbles upon his pupils playing soccer and, because he is tired and does not feel like seeing them again, constructs a typical dream of satisfaction where he is fondled, caressed, honoured and praised in the middle of the small group – until he wakes up, abandoned by all.

(2) Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo 2010)

The whole of cinema has often been compared to a dream, from the 1920s onward, on the basis of superficial equivalencies: both mobilize images, both put the images in a sequence without interference from the receiving subject, both have the capacity to abruptly pass from one thing to the next. We know where this comparison went in the 1970s, with the heavy intervention of psychoanalysis. Nonetheless, I do not dream at the cinema; and, if a movie wants to drag me into oneirism, it needs to put the forms into it, and to find the overall form. There are roughly two varieties: either to construct unrealistic scenes, or ‘surrealist’ ones, as they used to call it (of which the paradigm is still the Daliesque dream in Spellbound), or to accentuate the arbitrariness of the story and the succession of the images. Superimposition and dissolves have long been the privileged approach, but a more recent approach, simpler and more expedient really, is the jump cut: passing from one shot to the other by creating a difference between the two – if possible, making sure that this difference stays undecided for a while, that the oneiric status is not immediately clear, but almost conquered by the spectator (or conquered by the movie in the mind of the spectator). One filmmaker has become the specialist of this system, the late Buñuel, especially in Belle de jour or Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie. In the dream, there is only one feature that remains, but a remarkable one: the suddenness and arbitrariness of the transitions.

I am not slowly replacing the Rohmerian Hong with a Buñuelian Hong, and I am even less suggesting that Hong’s realism should be mitigated by a dose of ‘surrealism’. It is about identifying, as well as I can, the impression of a very specific strangeness in films that contain rigorously elaborated documentary details and at the same time cultivate the arbitrariness of events. Above all, it is about finding a formal anchoring for this feeling of strangeness and this game of arbitrariness. The detail, the switch to the dream, but just as well the sophisticated and vaguely perverse game of double stories, with their contradictions between versions and their irony (look at, in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, the very different account by him and then by her of the young girl’s first visit to the young man), are all ways of saying one and the same thing: we live in the imaginary, passing our time by replacing an unknowable real by our own scenarios and desires. The stories Hong’s characters tell each other, the stories they tell themselves, are all ways to avoid the real.

What remains if the story the characters tell themselves, if the story that drives the movie, is constantly failing to account for the real? Affect is what remains. Hong’s cinema is a cinema of the shot: a shot lasts; a new one is only produced when the first one has been exhausted. But ‘exhausted’ according to which criterion? Emotional above all. There is no logic in the development of Hong’s storylines, they are on the contrary happy to emphasize their inconsistency, their ‘idiocy’. The most important function of the shot is not to advance the storyline, but to produce an emotion of infinitely varying quality (the emotion in the scenes of encounter is not the same as the one in the sensual scenes). When to cut? When the emotion has been produced (but not necessarily at the moment of production). But it comes at a price: the price of a little idiocy.

There are two ways for a filmmaker to inhabit (or even haunt) his movies: as an actor or as a screenwriter. The Clint Eastwood way, whose recent oeuvre seems to be chiefly intended to reassure the fan club on the health of the hero. The Bergman way, with his famous motto: “My movies are the explanation of my images”, I am present, but you will not see me, you will see the content of my fantasies, dumped on the screen by me. And then there are those who alternate between the two, like Fassbinder or Allen, or those who combine them, like Bene. Hong is, I believe, part of the second category, with one small difference: he refuses to push the indiscretion as far as showing us his bare fantasies.

There is a sort of composite of the protagonist of Hong’s movies. He is a man who is still young, about thirty in his first movies, about forty later on; he is a filmmaker, screenwriter or professor (of cinema), sometimes an unknown stranger, sometimes a vague celebrity; he always seems a little lost, a little dorky, although he really is very clever, seemingly determined to fail, comparing himself to old friends who have made it; at the end of the film staying exactly where he was. This clumsy boy, who tried to find success in America and didn’t find it, struggles to find his place in his own country; he is full of vague projects and always seems on hold, never recognized, never satisfied. An unrepentant chaser of skirts, he is ready to fall in love with the first beautiful girl he meets; strangely enough, though he is generally not very charming, the girls love him. This slightly flattering portrait of an eternal outsider, who is determined to work in cinema, is too close to known biographical information for us not to see a self-portrait. Today, Hong has become an international celebrity, abroad more than in his own country, where his movies do not get mass distribution (a couple of tens of thousands of spectators). He remains, like the director Ku, an admired artist, famous even in certain circles, but without a big audience.

Why do all of Hong’s movies have this ‘same’ hero, who so closely resembles the filmmaker? One basic reason, which cannot altogether be ignored, is the convenience of the autobiographical script. “Promise me you will not turn it into a movie,” Yu-mi asks director Gosun, who doesn’t get why he wouldn’t. Another plausible reason is the equal convenience of metafiction: a movie that talks of cinema cannot fail its purpose; a hero dreaming of doing what the director of the movie has accomplished is convincing. But there is also a third reason: these bewildered, marginalized, wilfully asocial heroes are out of touch with their environment and with what happens to them; they are fully in touch, however, with the proliferation of the incongruous – from the idiotic detail to the oneiric idiom, from the arbitrary zig-zag of the stories to the unpredictability of the other’s reaction – in other words, with the elusiveness of the real. The idiocy this style of film exalts, through its play of details and connections and, more in general, through its play with sudden emergence, is then a way to avoid indiscretion, to dress it in a light garment of irony, mystery and drollery, by referring to the real - always to the real - the responsibility of the errors of the imaginary.

  • 1. Clément Rosset, Le Réel. Traité de l’idiotie (Paris: Minuit, 1977), 48.
  • 2. Raúl Ruiz, Poétique du cinéma (1994), trad. fr., (Paris: Dis Voir, 1995). Charles S. Peirce, “Le pragmatisme comme logique de l’abduction” (1903), trad. fr., Œuvres, tome 1, Pragmatisme et pragmaticisme, (Paris: Éd. du Cerf, 2002).
  • 3. Pascal Bonitzer, Éric Rohmer, (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1991), 25.
  • 4. « L’art de la mise en scène est un art de surgissement. Il fait apparaître […], regarder ailleurs, au delà. […] Un style cinématographique n’est pas un style pictural. C’est une certaine façon de faire apparaître les choses. C’est la création d’un univers. » Alexandre Astruc, “Notes sur la mise en scène (1950),” Du stylo à la caméra et de la caméra au stylo. Écrits (1942-1984) (Paris: L’Archipel, 1992), 348-349.

Originally published in Les Variations Hong Sang Soo, Eds. Simon Daniellou, Antony Fiant (De l’incidence, 2017). 
With thanks to Jacques Aumont and Sabrina Bonamy


Image (1) from Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja [On the Beach at Night Alone] (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

Image (2) from Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo, 2010)