Martin Scorsese Introduces Filmmaker Hong Sangsoo, “The Woody Allen of Korea”

In the clip above, Mar­tin Scors­ese talks about a group of films that, in his words, have “enriched me, edu­cat­ed me, dis­turbed me, moved me in a way that have awak­ened me to new pos­si­bil­i­ties in cin­e­ma.” Those words will remind many of us of our expe­ri­ences with Scors­ese’s own pic­tures, which rais­es a big ques­tion: what move­ment could pos­si­bly have enough pow­er to enrich, edu­cate, dis­turb, move, and cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly awak­en a man who has done so much enrich­ing, edu­cat­ing, dis­turb­ing, mov­ing, and cin­e­mat­ic awak­en­ing him­self?

Scors­ese speaks of the cin­e­ma of South Korea, espe­cial­ly the wave that, over the past twen­ty years, has brought the glob­al film scene such auteurs as Park Chan-wook (Joint Secu­ri­ty AreaOld­boyStok­er), Lee Chang-dong (OasisSecret Sun­shinePoet­ry), and Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Sum­mer, Fall, Win­ter… and Spring, 3‑Iron, Pietà). But he adds that, “for me, there’s some­thing espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing about the films of Hong Sang­soo. It’s got to do with his mas­ter­ful sense of sto­ry­telling. In each of his films that I’ve man­aged to see, every­thing kind of starts unas­sum­ing­ly” — but then things “unpeel like an orange.”

Only in one respect can I com­pare myself to Mar­tin Scors­ese: a love of Hong Sang­soo movies. I even wrote an essay for The Quar­ter­ly Con­ver­sa­tion a few years back try­ing to explain the artistry of this most pro­lif­ic Kore­an direc­tor, who has put out six­teen alco­hol-soaked, cig­a­rette-cloud­ed, social and sex­u­al awk­ward­ness-sat­u­rat­ed fea­tures to date. Some call Hong “the Kore­an Woody Allen,” which gets at the fact that his many come­dies of man­ners pass through more moods than com­e­dy and deal with more than man­ners, but that does­n’t cap­ture his pen­chant for rich for­mal and struc­tur­al exper­i­men­ta­tion — sto­ries told mul­ti­ple times, through dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, using clash­ing sets of facts, and so on — which delights cinephiles every­where.

This has made Hong a big name on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit — he usu­al­ly has a project or two mak­ing the rounds at any giv­en time — on which his lat­est movie Hill of Free­dom received much crit­i­cal acclaim. Telling of a Japan­ese man’s trip to Seoul to track down his Kore­an ex-girl­friend through a dis­or­dered pile of let­ters he sent her all at once, the most­ly Eng­lish-lan­guage movie shows the inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion of not just Hong’s appeal, but of his work itself. It allows few of its char­ac­ters to speak their native lan­guage, result­ing in the kind of mean­ing­ful inar­tic­u­la­cy that he’d pre­vi­ous­ly had to get his all-Kore­an casts drunk to achieve.

You can take the plunge into Hong’s cut-up and metic­u­lous­ly rearranged cin­e­mat­ic world of inept, jeal­ous­ly ide­al­is­tic men, women that I’ve else­where described as “eeri­ly unre­pen­tant stud­ies in blank cal­cu­la­tion and frigid pli­a­bil­i­ty,” and the cat­a­stro­phes into which they lead them­selves by start­ing with his debut The Day the Pig Fell into a Well, avail­able free on the Kore­an Film Archive’s Youtube chan­nel.

I recent­ly went to Korea to record a pod­cast inter­view with Seoul-based film schol­ar Marc Ray­mond about how Hong’s films reflect mod­ern Kore­an life. It turns out they reflect it pret­ty well, some­thing I’ll see for myself lat­er this year when, after hav­ing stud­ied the Kore­an lan­guage for near­ly a decade, I move to Korea — all out of an inter­est first stoked by Hong Sang­soo.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch 98 Kore­an Fea­ture Films Free Online, Thanks to the Kore­an Film Archive

The Five Best North Kore­an Movies: Watch Them Free Online

Mar­tin Scors­ese Cre­ates a List of 39 Essen­tial For­eign Films for a Young Film­mak­er

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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