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Tale of Cinema

1 November 2005

Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-Soo,South Korea, 2005) NFT Sun 30 Oct 21:00

     I have only managed to see one film at the LFF, but wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It’s on again on November 2 NFT1 at 2pm – go if you can! Hong-Sang-Soo’s latest film is a sort of comic version of Kiorastami’s ‘Close-Up’. And if he is to be believed, Seoul is a city of adolescence – the aggravated Oedipal complex, narcissistic mood swings, impulses of generosity and devotion, the uncertain line between self and other, the impossibilities of communication, idealism, yearning and despair.

    Tale of Cinema follows its main protagonists through two sequences, the first a film within the film, or so it transpires. This is about two young school-leavers who attempt to resurrect a failed relationship, fail to enjoy each other, fail to die in a hotel-room together, and go their separate ways. The second - a day in the life of two members of the cinema audience, happens well enough into their careers to raise issues about whether they are ‘successes’ or ‘failures’, but there is no significant sense of ageing. Other characters in the supporting cast may have got fed up or disillusioned with the antics of the male leads – there is a lovely moment when a fellow diner begs our hero wearily, ‘Just say if you are going to get very drunk, will you please?’ – but all the characters who interest us are living at the edge of their realities as if there is no tomorrow.
The echoes, repetitions, and patterning between the two sections - a favourite Hong-Sang-Soo technique it seems - paradoxically serves only to emphasise this existential preoccupation. We have the overwhelming sense of being in a young culture and a young cinema. Indeed from the opening frames, the freshness and nerviness of the viewing experience reminded me of nothing so much as ‘A bout de souffle’. Hong-Sang-Soo spent a few months studying at the Cinematheque Francaise – long enough I would say to pluck that precious bloom of eternal youth from its archive.  
What is the meaning of being alive and what can you possibly believe in – our characters ask of each other and/or themselves, relentlessly, perhaps particularly when they say nothing at all. But this adolescent effect - the knowing far too much for your own good and absolutely nothing at all simultaneously – has a premature authority and a tenderness all its own. Look at Stefan Straub’s account for openDemocracy of the 2002 South Korean elections
and in particular the link to Pew’s Global Attitudes for that period. Newly democratising, rapidly-modernising South Korea, hotfoot from its first US-style ‘primaries’, emerges as a quite unique combination of first-shoots-of-spring expectation and world-weariness: there must be some clues here.
But this is also a unique cinematic vision full of sociability and humour. Banal and everyday events may be the basic unit, but they are transfigured by this camera – one good reason why nobody in the film manages to die!

    I have been rather preoccupied with ‘women’ recently, and was so impressed by their treatment also. The whole impossibility of being regarded as an ‘angel’ is hopelessly and beautifully conveyed by Eom Ji-weon. Meanwhile, the cameo of  Sang-Weon’s mother is the high point in an almost perfect little living-room drama. What a snarling dog barely leashed this mother is! I don’t know why our hero didn’t push her off the roof…

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