It’s not easy to keep up with the burgeoning portfolio of South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who’s been creating films at a pace of at least one per year for the better part of a decade. Two from 2010 alone have come our way in the past few months: San Francisco International featured HaHaHa and this week, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts brings out Oki’s Movie. Though his latest, the closing night film at last year’s Venice International Film Festival, features trademark Hong characteristics, much buzz has centered on the ways in which this 11th full-length feature from the director departs from expectation.
Oki's Movie is broken up into four acts and uses the three main actors (Jeong Yu-mi, Lee Seon-gyun, and veteran actor Moon Sung-keon) of Hong's contribution to 2009's Jeonju Digital Project, Lost in the Mountains (which was featured at San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in 2010 along with his ninth film, Like You Know It All). Each act begins with its own titles as if shorts within an omnibus film. And each act begins and ends with what is known in the U.S. as “Pomp and Circumstance” (the graduation march). The first act ("A Day of Incantation") is revealed by the second to be not what it seems. The first act follows the loose structure of Hong films that came before it, including the obligatory awkward drinking scene where social norms are disrupted by a character speaking publicly what is better discussed privately, or better yet, not at all. Although the second act ("King of Kisses") begins with a scene tactically reminiscent of a break in Hong's Tale of Cinema, this is where Hong begins to take a new direction. It's as if Hong is taking slow steps into new territory, because what is different about the second act is that although Jingu (Lee) the film student “fails,” he does not fail in a pathetic way. Plus, the romantic relationship with Oki (Jeong) actually leaves you feeling, dare I say it, hopeful. You almost feel like you can believe in the young love of these two characters, whereas in past Hong films proclamations of love are always suspect.
The third act ("After the Snowstorm") is the shortest and presents a respectful, rather than the confrontational ones we found in Like You Know It All and the first act of Oki's Movie, question and answer session between the professor (Professor Song played by Moon) and two pupils, Oki and Jingu. The final fourth act (eponymously titled “Oki's Movie” and alluding to a circular conclusion based on what we are told in the second act about the first act) is the most dramatic of turns for Hong. It's told mostly in narration, which he's done before, but this time the love triangle is not portrayed as farce or the human desire to run on a treadmill of romantic mistakes. This section respects Oki's quandary, trying to piece together what she desires in both the “older man” and “younger man.” Yet it still resonates with Hong's continuing theme of remembrance of things past revisited in similar locations with different lovers.
Although not mainstream popular in his own country (still, many respected actors admire Hong's work, as the presence of the great Moon Sung-Keon here and exemplary Moon So-ri in HaHaHa are testament), his films are very much rooted in aspects of South Korean culture and habits. The South Korean particular I find myself most reflecting upon with Oki's Movie is Hong's persistent re-examination of “seonbi masculinity” in South Korea. (This reflection was prompted by what I learned recently from reading Sun Jung's intriguing analysis in her book Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop Idols.) Rooted in Chinese Confucian tradition, seonbi masculinity took hold during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) in Korea. Seonbi were expected to devote their lives to studying while refraining from manual labor and domestic duties, indicating “mental attainment rather than physical performance.” The modern day equivalent of the seonbi can be seen as the writers, film directors and artists (all of whom are also often university professors), who wander about aimlessly in all of Hong's films.
As we've learned from Judith Butler, masculinities are performed and different masculinities can hold court at the same time. During the Joseon Dynasty, there was also the patriarchal authoritarian masculinity of the yangban nobility. As Moon Seung-sook notes in her contribution to Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. Laurel Kendall), the yangban nobility expression of masculinity was later reinforced in South Korea by capitalist industrialization. However, as intimated in Hong's films of failing, pathetic artists and scholars, seonbi masculinity appears to have floundered in the late 20th and early 21st century. Although The Day a Pig Fell into a Well does have a character react with physical violence when his patriarchal privilege is threatened, the films after Hong's debut present male artists and scholars who confront their modern male insecurities by exhibiting what seem more like teenage temper tantrums when they don't simply refuse to act, recoiling as they relinquish the responsibilities relationships require. Oki's Movie, along with continuing to provide more space for women in his films, offers a further evolving seonbi masculinity that is less pathetic, less impotent than that which Hong has presented before.
The performance of gender can, if we follow this thinking, change across history, across nationalities, across generations, and across the lives, and days, of individuals. The masculinity expressed by a construction worker and a college professor can be very different and very much the same throughout their day's activities, let alone their lives. Hong's focus on the modern South Korean seonbi masculinity, intentional or not, has revealed an anxiety of a role in flux ever since the “turbo capitalism” (coined by American economist Edward Luttwark) that modernized South Korea settled in for a pit stop at the IMF Crisis of the late 1990s. No more are the changes in this particular masculinity more prominent then from Oki's perspective in the final chapter of Oki's Movie where director Oki compares and contrasts two suitors, the older man whose masculinity was developed within South Korea's tumultuous past and the young man of her generation who has benefited along with Oki by growing up in a prosperous South Korea. She sees something she likes in both of them. Perhaps this is why Oki's Movie leaves us with an awkward ambivalence that resonates long after the film is finished rather than a firm resolution to forget soon after.
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