Friday, 10 September 2010

Booze Vs. God (a response to Tony Rayns)

In October’s Sight and Sound, to accompany a touring season of films, Tony Rayns’ offers a much appreciated overview of the career of Hong Sangsoo. The article is both a good primer for those unfamiliar with the Korean filmmaker’s work, and an instructive analysis for those lucky and/or dedicated enough to have surveyed the oeuvre. In the last paragraph, Rayns takes issue with critics who habitually compare Hong’s work with that of Eric Rohmer’s. This is, in Rayns’ opinion, “lazy”.

Lazy critics compare Hong with the late Eric Rohmer, simply because both directors think a lot about methods of seduction and underlying sexual attitudes. But it is a false comparison, because Rohmer never surrendered his intellectual detachment and never put his own sensibilities at risk within his films.

Now, putting aside my suspicions that Rayns’ objection may be due to a less than appreciative view of Rohmer’s cinema as a whole (unforgivable, of course), I would still like to take issue with the dismissal. Accepted, the parallels between the two filmmakers could perhaps be overdone, and to view Hong as ‘the Asian Eric Rohmer’ is undoubtedly reductive. Both are very distinctive singular voices, but the reasons for the common association are not hard to spot. You only have to look at Rayns’ own bullet point description of Hong’s cinema as “smart, witty movies about likeable/fallible characters who screw up their relationships, drink too much and blurt out awkward and embarrassing truths” to see why people might choose to put the two side-by-side. Rayns’ concession that “both directors think a lot about methods of seduction and underlying sexual attitudes” only tells half of the story. We could add a preference for viewing their characters ‘on holiday’ and a continuing exploration of male anxieties in the face of sexually assured young women (not to mention the diary-like structure of Night and Day that so resembles many of Rohmer's works, and the recent inclusion of dream sequences, a tactic E.R used in Love in the Afternoon). There’s a lot more booze in Hong’s cinema, and a lot less God. But even the marathon drinking sessions that invariably crop up in Hong’s films could perhaps be seen as equivalents to Rohmer’s nightclub/party dancing scenes (in which developing relationships are put under the microscope) that became something of a signature in his later films.

The assertion that Rohmer “never surrendered his intellectual detachment and never put his own sensibilities at risk” seems bizarre to me. And if he is suggesting that the more overtly autobiographical nature of Hong’s work means that there is less distance between the filmmaker and his characters, I would point to Hong’s approach of using self consciously alienating tools such as fragmented or elliptical narratives (or, more recently, zooms) that have the effect of producing quasi scientific examinations of the doomed relationship in question.

Hong’s protagonists are generally filmmakers of a similar age to his own, whereas Rohmer chose to remain focused (mainly) on characters in their twenties (instead of going down the Woody Allen route of having his male characters age, while the romantic interest remains in suspended animation). But earlier on in his career Rohmer quite often presented characters with similar biographies to his own (My Night with Maud being the clearest example). As Hong’s career develops we will see which direction he takes.

Hong can be a lot tougher of the feckless males that populate his films, that much is sure. And the final impression we are left with is quite often far more bitter than Rohmer’s more forgiving denouements. But I don’t see why this should stop us from productively reading Hong’s films as critical responses to the Frenchman’s work, and in viewing the pair as one of the bickering almost-couples that they both like to prod.

Rayns concludes his article by offering what is, for him, a far more fitting comparison: that of David Bowie and his song ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’. I have to say I’m a big fan of such feely associative readings, and, in this spirit I would like to offer my own musical equivalent to Hong’s cinema: the 1981 Dead Kennedys single, 'Too Drunk to Fuck’.

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