“Reiteration becomes reversal in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), the most complicated instance of Hong’s doubling. Its halves, each divided into chapters, are titled with terms of contingency – ‘Perhaps Accident’ and ‘Perhaps Intention’ – as if to underscore a lack of established veracity. Commonly interpreted as a ‘he said, she said’ account of a love affair in which parallel but contradictory versions of the same events leave the audience uncertain as to which variation is the correct one, Virgin was shot in black-and-white, Hong said, “to better enable viewers to distinguish the differences” between the repeated “identical” scenes. (He sees color as a distraction.) That a scholar recently mapped out Virgin’s ‘deceptive design’ in a detailed three-page grid to argue that the film is actually more linear and synchronous than previously thought only confirms how confounding Hong’s narrative fragmentation can prove.
More than most, Hong’s films command attentiveness. Shots, motifs, objects, dialogue, and events return, often transmogrified in their second appearances – a dropped fork becomes a spoon, napkins replace chopsticks. Seemingly unimportant figures – for example, in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, a chef walking across a parking lot, diminished to insignificance by an overhead shot, or, in Woman on the Beach (2006), a pair of ‘extras’ power-walking down the right side of the frame – come back as narrative or temporal markers, or even as consequential characters, leaving a viewer to feel like David Hemmings in Blowup, scrutinizing Hong’s every image for clandestine signifiers. Placement in the frame is also paramount, as ostensibly casual groupings turn out to be extremely deliberate in their composition – meant to signal social unease, deceit, or shifting allegiances. Watching the second half of Virgin, one mentally scrambles to reconstruct the ‘unstudied’ groupings of the first, as the virgin and her two controlling suitors seem to replay their fraught exchanges in reconfigured formations, and it is not always easy to recall if or how they differ. (That Cézanne, a proto-Cubist, is one of the director’s artistic touchstones is no surprise; Hong, like Bresson, another of his formative influences, is a metteur en ordre – an imposer or maker of order, a finder of hidden forms.)”
“Seeing, seeing again, perceiving, but without grasping the invisible tipping point: that was already the formal challenge of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, with all of its decals (of scenes) and shifts (of tempo), out of synch repetitions of moments that acquire a different meaning by being, the second time around, launched a little later, cut a little earlier, lengthened by some dialogue or silence. This rhythmic rule, which could have only appeared as a rhetorical exercise on the polysemy of film editing, actually paved the way for what is today the essence of Hong Sang-soo’s style: the exploration of a game of substitution and duplication that plays with the spectator’s memory and anticipation.”