The Australian publisher Fireflies Press has created a ten-book series of Decadent Editions, ten takes on a different film from each year of the 2000s, which has thus far included Nick Pinkerton on Tsai Ming-liang’s Bu san (Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 2003), Erika Balsom on James Benning’s TEN SKIES (2004), and Melissa Anderson on David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). The latest in the collection, Dennis Lim on Hong Sang-soo’s Geukjangjeon (Tale of Cinema, 2005), is primarily an act of film criticism, particularly the type of criticism as art practiced by Oscar Wilde: “If there is a filmmaker who ill suits a single-minded focus, it is Hong. Taking a cue from his favoured tactic of doubling, I am endeavouring here a kind of Hongian experiment, attempting two paths through – and around – Tale of Cinema. One path cuts through the film itself, while the other hovers at a remove” (p. 47). Lim burrows down, termite-like, to invoke his own discussion of Hong via Manny Farber (p. 74-79), into this single filmmaker’s work, using Tale of Cinema as a case study but primarily concerned with Hong’s authorship more broadly. As such, it is not a typical monograph, because, as Lim argues, Hong is not the typical filmmaker, even amongst his fellow art cinema auteurs: “If auteurism as we now understand it is a matter of pattern recognition, Hong is the ne plus ultras of the modern auteur, a near parodic exemplar” (p. 23). But paradoxically, as Lim argues, this positions the viewer to look for the variations: “the mode of attention we bring to Hong’s movies reverses the auteurist stance of scanning a body of work for through lines and affinities. Knowing that similarities are a given, we look for differences” (p. 23-24).

Lim thus structures his text like a Hong film, divided into six parts, each with its own double (part i is followed by part 1, etc, although the final part vi concludes the book without its part 6). Sections i-vi follow a more conventional singular focus on Tale of Cinema, but parts 1-5 allow Lim to digress and speculate on the nature of Hong’s cinema and of cinema and even art more generally, including a discussion of Hong’s favourite painter, Paul Cézanne (p. 93-95). This makes the work more engaging than a standard critical piece and is successful in illuminating Lim’s passion for Hong, an affection illustrated by Lim’s breadth of analysis. And while this does have the primary drawback of certain ideas feeling underdeveloped, it also gives the reader, especially those with a strong familiarity with the director, an opportunity to think through this plethora of declarations and examinations and compare one’s own thoughts and experiences with the work. And, in a paradox worthy of Hong, the structure and approach give the uninitiated an introduction to what Hong’s cinema entails and why his films are worthy of such lofty consideration.

Sections i-vi, the parts of the book that, taken as a whole, are closer to a conventional monograph, take up only 49 pages, as opposed to sections 1-5, which total 115, an apt demonstration of where Lim’s overall concerns lie. That said, Lim does provide some close analysis of Tale of Cinema as a specific text, and not surprisingly, given his critical credentials, all this material is strong. Lim relates Tale of Cinema to other examples of “films within films,” but also opens by quoting Roland Barthes’s “Leaving the Movie Theater,” and how Hong’s film enacts this “liminal” space: “it is not just the characters, now unhypnotised, but also us, the viewers of the film, who have been thrown into new surroundings” (p. 14). Lim puts the film into the traditions of deadpan comedies (p. 52) and within the cinema of awkwardness of both pioneers like John Cassavetes (p. 55) and contemporaries like Maren Ade (p. 56) and shows how this plays out through Hong’s long dinner table sequences, an activity of the everyday that recurs in every Hong work (p. 81). Lim also examines the use of sexuality, noting that this is Hong’s last film with an explicit sex scene (p. 47) and how the hotel room as a space works to play out the film’s themes of sex and death (p. 115-126). And while all Hong’s work plays with the idea of autobiography, Tale of Cinema is more specific, telling of a failed suicide attempt that mirrors Hong’s own experience as a younger man (p. 158), which Lim argues contributes to the theme of death even as Hong irreverently treats the theme comedically. And Lim concludes his study with Tale of Cinema’s own ending while also indicating that, as always, Hong never really ends, but begins again: “The predicaments of a given movie are never solved so much as deferred and deflected, channelled into other forms, lying in wait in new guises. As the film ends, it is already beginning again” (p. 191). 

Tale of Cinema

While writing the book, Lim was planning a retrospective on Hong for New York’s Lincoln Center, which brought up the question of how to optimally encounter the films. Because of its circular aspect, Lim decided to concentrate on the entire oeuvre and argues against linearity: “Rather than chart a trajectory from the start to the present, it seemed more interesting, more productive, to find frameworks to impose on the maze of films, lenses to help see through the haze” (p. 37). He indicates many of these possible framings: male versus female protagonist, colour versus black and white, workplace versus vacation settings, seasons, choice of alcohol, recurring lead actors, and formal strategies (p. 37-39). But these are all found to be limiting: “even if a certain taxonomy was true, it was never true enough” (p. 40). Lim decided instead to try to convey two key things about Hong’s cinema: “its meaning and pleasures are cumulative” and “his is an unfixed body of work, prismatic and modular” (p. 40). In doing so, as his Hong-like structure suggests, Lim conforms more to storytelling rather than scholarly norms, leading the reader through this unique cinema and displaying how much he know about Hong and, more importantly, how much he has thought about Hong and his work. Not that this excludes scholarship: Lim relies on familiar cultural theorists, such as the aforementioned Roland Barthes, along with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Walter Benjamin, and Henri Bergson; film scholars such as André Bazin, Raymond Bellour, David Bordwell, and Tom Gunning; and, most interestingly, social scientists such as Henri Lefebvre, Marc Augé, Ray Oldenburg, and Wayne Koestenbaum. The result is an auteurist study that, unlike so many, does not neglect the social, even with a seemingly apolitical director such as Hong.

A significant part of this politics, Lim convincingly argues, is tied into Hong’s sparse production method: “what is his entire project if not an act of resistance, a rejection of the norms that dictate what movies should be and how they get made” (p. 36). One of the strongest parts of the book are an explication of the idea of Hong’s cinema as “minor” and what this implies. While unusually this term is used as a dismissive, it is Hong’s speciality and part of what makes him distinctive: “That descriptor and its variants – slight, throwaway, modest – surface repeatedly, part of a default lexicon for reviewers confronting a new Hong” (p. 59). It also places him within an artistic tradition of the minor, as theorized by Deleuze and Guattari in relation to literature and Gunning in relation to cinema and including such figures as Franz Kafka and Éric Rohmer. Lim contrasts this, accurately, with the idea of minimalism, particularly the style of Asian minimalism, in which Hong is sometimes included but which is not a particularly useful descriptor: “He uses long takes, albeit embroidered with pans and zooms; his characters may not be clearly motivated but they are hardly opaque and rarely restrained. Hong’s films are not durational in the usual sense of imposing on the viewer the full weight of time; if the camera is still running, it is because the characters are still drinking, still talking” (p. 63). Hong is more minor than minimalist, partly because of his sense of “modesty and moderation, doing more with less” (p. 67); because of this, Lim finds the affinities between Hong and Robert Bresson the “most fascinating” partly because it is “counterintuitive” (p. 65-66). Indeed, their films are so vastly different from each other that the influence that Hong claims can seem puzzling. However, if one examines Bresson’s writings, especially Notes on the Cinematograph, which Lim notes Hong used to carry around with him (p. 67), the connection becomes clearer. Lim even finds a stunning Bresson aphorism that seems to predict all of Hong’s cinema: “A small subject can provide the pretext for many profound combinations. Avoid subjects that are too vast or too remote, in which nothing warns you when you are going astray. Or else take from them only what can be mingled with your life and belong to your experience” (p. 67).

In addition to being sociological and minor, Hong’s films are also, Lim argues, connected to the structural avant-garde and surrealism: “even as his films traffic in a realism of the quotidian, they flaunt the visibility of artifice” (p. 134), causing Lim to compare the experience of watching Hong with the experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton, particularly his 1971 38-minute short (nostalgia). It is this structure, this form, this working method, more than any particular aspect of the subject matter, that captures Lim’s critical eye: “What is ultimately most remarkable about Hong’s method – a method that prizes in-the-moment responsiveness – is not simply that he concocts stories or develops characters as he goes but that he is also inventing structures within which to contain it all” (p. 133). This extends into Hong’s connection with surrealism, not only the English titles of some of his work (The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors [O! Su-jeong, 2000], Woman is the Future of Man [Yeojaneun namjaui miraeda, 2004]), but his obsession with dreams and with liminal states more generally. Hong “refuses to clearly bracket off his dream sequences” (p. 140) because his “project is a continuous search for thresholds” and “seeking out liminal states” (p. 141). Hence the reoccurrence of spaces like the movie theatre and, even more commonly, the beach (p. 141), as well as the importance of alcohol, “the most common threshold experience in Hong – and maybe also in life” (p. 143). All this acting as a way for Hong to defer, à la Derrida, the meanings of his works, which Lim links to the alcoholic, who is not seeking “the ultimate drink, which would be obliterating, but the penultimate one, which enables the system of inebriation to continue. And go it goes in the world of Hong, where there is always one more drink, one more dotted line” (p. 148).

Tale of Cinema

In his last of his numbered sections 1-5, Lim finally touches on the more personal and autobiographical components of Hong’s authorship. Typically, there are some very astute critical observations: for example, a reading of the ending of Soseolgaui yeonghwa (The Novelist’s Film, 2022) that places it in the context of a wedding Hong and now long-time partner and collaborator Kim Min-hee are not legally able to have because of Korean divorce law (p. 179). But the section reveals the book’s main weakness, in that some points are not fully argued and supported. For example, Lim writes that, “one problem with reading Hong’s films in terms of gender critique is that they are not especially illuminating in that regard” (p. 183-184). This may be correct, but Lim does not expand on this or offer counterexamples for comparison, a tendency that recurs throughout. Lim also seems reluctant to discuss Hong as a potentially problematic figure. At one point, in discussing the controversy over his extra-marital affair, Lim states that it is “none of our business” (p. 178), which is contradictory given how much Lim is willing to discuss about Hong’s personal life when it suits his purposes. Clearly, Hong’s work has a self-reflexive component, and while Lim is correct not to read any figures as direct surrogates, Lim gives Hong credit for his self-critique: “It’s possible that no other director has so frequently held up his own kind for scrutiny, and it’s almost certain that none has committed as fully to stripping the profession of any semblance of glamour and stature” (p. 166). Perhaps, but then is it not fair to consider all the bad behaviour on display in the films as a reflection of Hong as well, particularly a series of films in which professors (which Hong has also been for many years) have sexual relationships with their students? Lim’s response would be that “(e)ven as Hong flirts with confession, he inscribes doubt” (p. 179); but given the #metoo reckoning that came to Korea, with the novel and film 82 Nyeonsaeng Gim Jiyeong (Kim Ji-young Born 1982, Kim Do-young, 2019) – which Lim mentions – as a reflection point, not to mention the offences of fellow auteur Kim Ki-duk, it seems like a curious omission on Lim’s part to not think through and reckon with this thornier part of Hong’s biography, especially if so much attention is given to other aspects of Hong’s personal life (the failed suicide, the relationship with Kim Min-hee, the heavy drinking etc).

That reservation aside, Lim’s study is a must-read for anyone interested in Hong, and even its slight weakness of not fleshing out some of his observations is a potential advantage for scholars, as Lim’s creative treatment and analysis points the way towards many possible future avenues of enquiry. If one was expecting a more traditional monograph of Tale of Cinema specifically, there may be some disappointment, in that Lim does not get particularly granular with the text itself. Such can be the drawbacks of a focus on the larger oeuvre. But with an artist such as Hong, such an approach has more advantages than disadvantages, and Lim smartly does not ignore the sociological in favour of the aesthetic, seeing the two as intimately intertwined. To quote once again from Bresson, as cited by Lim: “Your film is not readymade. It makes itself as it goes along under your gaze” (p. 102). Lim’s work of criticism as artistic practice follows a similar path, making it an exhilarating reading experience and a difficult one to review, partly because Lim, unlike many scholars, clearly did not have his book readymade. This review has been an attempt at sharing that experience.

Dennis Lim, Tale of Cinema (Fireflies Press, 2022).

About The Author

Marc Raymond is an Associate Professor in the Communications department at Kwangwoon University in Seoul. He is the author of the book Hollywood's New Yorker: The Making of Martin Scorsese (SUNY Press, 2013) and has published essays on Hong Sang-soo in the New Review of Film and Television Studies and Style.

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