A Cigarette with Hong Sang-soo
Korean cinema is on a roll. Since 2000, a new generation of filmmakers, such as Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, and Hong Sang-soo, has produced internationally acclaimed masterpieces. This Korean “new wave” offers a fresh look at this emerging country on the cinematic map. I met Hong Sang-soo in Berlin the day after the screening of On the Beach at Night Alone at the 2017 Berlinale. A few days later, his actress Kim Min-hee would win the Silver Bear for Best Actress.
To prepare for the interview with Hong Sang-soo, I chose to adopt his method. Avoiding note-taking during the press conference following the screening, I simply sat, observed, and listened to him. Then, on the day of the interview, I woke up around four o’clock in the morning and prepared my questions very quickly, following our intuition. With the conversation having had to move to the smoking-room of the Hyatt Hotel at his request, I spontaneously chose to smoke a cigarette with him (from his pack). Since the wires and headphones in the interview room of the Berlinale Palast had become tangled in the transition to the Hyatt, I found myself having to untangle everything in front of one of the masters of Asian cinema. Small goatee, thin face, mischievous eyes, and a voice of astonishing gravity, Hong Sang-soo has the slowness of those Zen masters who serve you tea in small porcelain bowls before slicing you with a simple sentence. Except that he has the reputation of smoking like a chimney, drinking like a sailor, and systematically having adventures with his actresses. The scenarios of his films pretty much follow the same framework.
Anne-Christine Loranger: Hong Sang-soo, I smoke one cigarette a year and decided to smoke it with you.
Hong Sang-soo: Oh! That’s great! This way, it’ll be something special.
Before that, I need to take a minute to rearrange my equipment. I’m sorry.
Please do. You’re Canadian, but you’re staying here, I take it? What brought you to Berlin?
It was love.
Ah! Love... Is your friend German?
He is now my husband. We’ve been together for a long time. OK, the equipment is ready, let’s do this! When I get an idea for a novel, a poem, or a short film, it comes to me crystal clear, with laser precision. I only have to follow it. You said that you function differently. Still, you have been producing about one film a year for the last two decades. How does the inspiration come to you?
It’s not so strong. You kind of know it is the right thing when it comes. It’s quiet. You see small lights, and they look cute. And you almost instantly know that you have found something. Then, usually, I know that it is the right thing I need, for the film or the dialogue, and arrangement of scenes, how I progress from here to there. It’s small things… The light, for example. I instantly know whether it is the right one or the wrong one.
What is the feeling of “right”?
When it fills all of the requirements.
It depends. If there is a dialogue problem and then it feels right. It satisfies all the requirements I initially felt. You have to, you know, feel it with your heart. The right thing comes, and I know that this is it. It has the right feeling to it. Sometimes I don’t exactly know the requirements because there are too many, or they are too vague, but you do it because it just feels right. And later, you realize that this was the right thing to do. Every time I find something like that, I feel lucky, and I make a wish that the luck will go on. (laughter)
Typically, art-house and independent films have a lot of silent scenes, such as characters that evolve without talking much. Your characters are very chatty, and people talk a lot. What is the role of silence for you? How do you work with silence?
It does not matter if the characters are chatty at the surface or silent at the surface, what’s important is “is it new?”, “is it fresh?” for me. I can make a silent scene, where people don’t talk. It does not matter on the surface whether they are chatty or just walking around.
There is this bench scene in the park in Hamburg, where the two women talk. It is a very long, single-shot scene. It takes very precise actresses to work with a scene like that. What did you tell your actresses so that they could be able to deliver their dialogues with such freshness?
Almost nothing. (laughter) For me, the directions on the spot don’t need much explanation. What matters is to have the right cast, the correct perception of what they are, and the right dialogue that I wrote that morning. When it all fits together, you don’t have to say much.
Do you tell them “you have this kind of feeling, this kind of relationship with this person”?
Sometimes I do. The actors may have misunderstood the intention when they read the script. If the contents of some of the dialogues are sometimes too abstract, then I give explanations. I try to minimize the direction because it usually doesn’t help. You have to tell the actors the only things you know because everything else is wrong for them. What counts is to do the right casting, which means that, intuitively, you choose the right people for that moment in your life. You have to have the right perception of the actor, which means that you observe all the things you need to understand the feeling of that person, who happens to be an actor or an actress. Action and dialogue must be right; that is, when I write the script of the day in the morning, how the actors speak, what they say, must be right. When all this is present, you hardly need to say anything. They know what they have to do.
You give them a lot of freedom?
Freedom, I don’t know. They memorize their texts, usually in 30 minutes. When it’s longer texts, maybe 45 minutes. We don’t have much time because we have to finish three or four scenes a day. So, they memorize their texts while walking, or in the car. Still, they don’t need to think, analyse, bring their perception, and dramatize the story. They learn their lines, and if the dialogue is the right one for them, then they do it very well. I’ve heard actors tell me many times that the character they’ve just created is strange to them, that they don’t know how they created it. They don’t know if they can ever play such a character again in other films. For me, that means that the dialogue and the action in the script – and that’s the most important thing – must fit the person playing them. It’s not just the skill of the actor, but the content of the script must fit.
So, you always write for specific actors?
Yes, of course, I do. I always choose the locations first and then the actors. I try to talk to them, to drink with them... Just talking to them, something comes into my system, and when I have to write on the morning of the shoot, I start at 4:00, 5:00, sometimes 3:00. It’s always intuitive, there’s no preparation, just places and actors and something in my head. And then it comes to me. I try to arrange them in a particular way, to bring out something too. Every word, every line of the scripts is given to me. When you’re more open, more things come to you. It may seem irresponsible to work that way, but that’s how I do it. As someone who grew up in this culture, I have seen so many stories, so much drama. The first thing I see when I tell a story are the clichés. We are trained to see life in a particular narrative form. Clichés are pleasant. When I work with fragments of dialogue, I don’t try to achieve something pleasant. I try to find a balance between fragments. I know how another person would feel if I put fragments together in a certain way, but I try not to get overwhelmed by that pleasure.
You have to keep your mind very wide opened and very calm.
That’s well said. I love this way of working. It’s in my temperament. At the very beginning of my career, I had to write a complete script to get funding and had to write everything, where we would be at what time, and what would be said. I don't like that process. I feel more like a painter, using the mountains, the sun, the wind, and working from what’s there. It’s curious what happens to me when I’m there, and I have a canvas. It’s a joy to see what happens. For example, during the shooting in Germany, we were short of actors, and we were doing tests. I asked my cinematographer Pak Hyong-yeol to move towards the two women. And after using this take twice, I had to be consistent with the character I had created and make sense of it in the end.
In my opinion, great filmmakers never make just one film over and over again, different aspects of the same thing, like the painter Cézanne, endlessly painting Mount Sainte-Victoire. Michael Haneke, for example, explores violence. For you, it would be uncertainty.
Mmm. Good word!
Do you think that that’s a good word?
Yes. Because the moment you realize what you don’t know, something happens. It’s the premise of something alive. For that, you need to know how ignorant you are. People say: “I know nothing.” But they act as if they know everything, all the time, all day, all their lives. We don't know the extent of everything we don’t know. It's very difficult to know how ignorant we are.
With that kind of approach, how do you get funding for your films?
I make very low-budget films: a few actors and a few production steps. They don’t ask me for a lot of money. They say that working with me is like taking three weeks’ vacation. (laughs) Yes! Yes! That’s what they tell me! I give them very little money, so our budget is reduced. I don’t make a lot of profit; but out of that profit, I can make a new film. That way, I can do whatever I want.
You have a very particular way of shooting: fairly quick zooms, conversations filmed from the side, few close-ups from the front, why do you opt for this way of doing things?
For practical reasons: I don’t want to cut and shoot again from different angles. When the scene is over, if the actors are happy and I’m happy, I want it to be the end. I don’t want them to have to redo the scene from a different angle. So, when I shoot like this, each scene can create things that we didn’t anticipate. Every take is very different. I like it when I look at what’s going to happen in the next take. So, when it’s 80% good for me, then it’s the right take. So, if we do very long takes, 10 minutes long, you can’t expect it to be 100% good in all that time, with only one hour to memorize the lines. I don’t expect that. It would be unrealistic. Already, if it’s 70% good, that’s fine. And after that, I don’t want them to do it again, and they can’t do it the same way. Between the texts, the actions, some pauses are impossible to repeat in the next take because they are tiny. So, when the scene is finished, it’s finished. For the rest, these are practical necessities. The only way to shoot two people talking is sideways. I don’t care so much about not showing their faces from the front because even when you frame a profile, you show a lot of things. You don’t need to show the whole face to show what he’s thinking, what she’s feeling. Sometimes you look at a person from your car 50 meters away, a woman over there doing something, and you know what she’s doing. Human beings are all the same. You don’t have to show her whole face, all her expressions, to understand what she’s thinking. So, I don’t mind filming people in profile.
How do you work with the cinematographer? Here, for example (i.e., the smoking-room of the Hyatt in Berlin). We are conversing while smoking a cigarette. How would you film this scene?
Then I would probably put the camera there (near the wall) and move the table where we are a little bit to get greater field depth. When I get to the location, it takes me very little time, two to five minutes, to decide where I’m going to put the camera, the actors, and that the movements will be from here to there. Then we do the first rehearsal, and then I decide when we’re going to zoom in and out the panoramic shots. I give all my instructions to the cinematographer. And that’s it! It doesn't take a lot of time.
And how do you work with light? Always in natural light?
No, it’s a mixture of natural light and present light. Here, because we’re indoors and there are no windows, we’d have to use my equipment for back-up lighting. I try to minimize as much as possible. You know, making things look good visually doesn’t add value to a scene. What's important is that visually things are right. That's what I’m trying to achieve, a truth, a rightness in the scene that’s being shot.
In this film, I noticed many conversations between women about their need to be pretty. That comes back a lot. It seems to be a major concern of the women in this film – a need to be always reassured by their entourage about their appearance.
Mmm... Men tell women that they are pretty. When I say something like “you're beautiful,” “you’re pretty,” “you’re good looking,” “you’re cute….” I try to avoid tact, to be as direct as possible. I don’t want to beat around the bush.
Is that the way you are in life?
Yes. And I like to see someone say that. I like that honesty, that transparency. You know, it’s difficult to write a scene where people express their affection without becoming superficial. So, I choose to be direct. Well, now you know he likes you! We can take the next step. Why worry, make people wait, and all that. Get him to tell you how he feels, and get him to tell you that he loves you. And what’s the next line, the next step? Well, that’s the question.
The female characters in this film have conversations that I’m 100% certain I’d never had with my best friend. This scene, for example, on the balcony in Hamburg, where Younghee is talking to Jeeyoung and Jeeyoung says, “I don’t have much desire," and Younghee says, “Yes, I certainly have more than you do,” is a very intimate revelation. I might have a conversation like that with my mother. Where did this come from?
These are things that came up during the writing of the dialogue because that’s how I see them as people. I chose these two people as the director, and I see them in a certain way, and this dialogue emerges in my mind as a character. I see this woman, and I see this woman, and I imagine they would say that kind of thing.
Isn’t that something you’ve observed in discussions between women?
Sometimes the dialogue comes to me from direct experience, from memory. But these lines you’re talking about have emerged from the characters, from the way I perceive them. In the collision between these characters, it's this dialogue that came to me.
I felt that it “stuck'” to this actress, who is very androgynous; she is halfway between the feminine and the masculine. At the same time, even if that were true, I know that I could never reveal something so intimate.
But you can’t deny that people can say it!
I don't know. When I replay your film in my head, the conversations in a restaurant in the middle of a group of friends, and these intimate revelations by Younghee and Myungsoo about their personal feelings in the couple they were in, I find things I haven’t seen in my Western world. I have been around a lot of Germans in recent years who are of great sentimental modesty. But I wonder if it’s typically Korean, that kind of thing? Or is it Hong Sang-soo?
I think your appreciation is a mixture of two things. On the one hand, your limited experience as a human being, because you haven’t known characters fundamentally different from your quintessence. But the other thing is that I make these two characters collide, and then in my mind something happens, which you never knew, which doesn’t correspond to your experience. It's a mixture of these two things that make you think, ‘how can they do this?’ But that’s right. As long as you feel that the scene is realistic enough, you can accept to abandon your landmarks, choose to believe in what’s happening on the screen, and enjoy the story. The script doesn't have to be realistic because there is no “real reality.”
Younghee always seems to drift, like a ship lost at sea looking for a home port, an anchor. What was the initial inspiration for this character who is uncertain about everything in his life? In a way, this film is very you because there is nothing certain about him from beginning to end.
I don’t know. Maybe there are several reasons why I wrote this movie. Perhaps it has to do with my state of mind during the time I wrote this film. All directors use their own lives as inspiration: my interests, my main questionings, my interrogations. You need an intimate distance with the subject you are dealing with. But I’m not trying to make autobiographical films. I try to get as close to me as possible, and to get away from it just before the plane touches the ground. Maybe if you compare me to other filmmakers, my films seem autobiographical to you, but that’s not my intention.
At one point, Younghee kneels in front of a bridge in Hamburg. I love that scene where you can feel that she is experiencing something important, that she is going to go through something. She prays for the strength to cross to the other side, but in the end, she never crosses over.
Ah! Who knows when she’ll cross? When she sees the bridge, because she’s so desperate, so silently desperate, she clings to that kind of symbolism – crossing the bridge, like going through this ordeal of our lives. It’s a desperate approach, a desperate attempt. As she bows down in front of the bridge, she prays that some concrete action will help her. She is looking for a miracle. A miracle obtained a little too easily. But, of course, she is sincere. I can understand her. I can understand why she’s doing this. But the miracle doesn’t come by leaning over a bridge. It takes more than that.
It takes what?
A miracle is a miracle because you don’t know how you get it. It’s something that comes to you when you don’t expect it.
Is that what you’re looking for?
If you know how to get it, it’s not a miracle.
But it happens a lot to you to get miracles. Doesn’t it?
Yes, but especially when I’m making a movie. There are other parameters in my life. And that’s why I like shooting films! (laughter)
Originally published in French in Séquences 308, May/June 2017.