“Tale of Cinema”, nominated for the Golden Palm at the 2005 Cannes Festival, marks the sixth effort by Hong Sang-soo, a South Korean auteur whose films (including “The Future of Man is Woman” and “Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors”) have won considerable admiration and praise on the art house circuit. With “Cinema”, Hong continues to develop both stylistically and thematically, with a deceptively simple tale of illusion and the effects of unobtainable fantasy on real life. Despite an initially glum premise, the film is both challenging and progressive, and sees the director directly engaging the viewer in an intellectually fascinating manner without straying too far into the realms of the obscure.
The plot begins in Seoul with a young man named Sang-weon (Lee Gi-woo, “Windstruck”), who after declining to join his brother on a trip to the mountains, wanders down an alleyway only to spot a girl (Eom Ji-weon, “The Scarlet Letter”) he was previously involved with, though not to the point of actually having a relationship. The two agree to meet that night, and after dinner and a number of drinks, decide to commit suicide together. Despite several attempts, the two fail, and the young man ends up back with his family, revealing that it may be his mother’s harsh and uncaring attitude which has driven him to try and take his own life.
The film then suddenly switches to an older man, Tong-su (Kim Sang-gyeong, “Memories of Murder”), who is leaving a cinema that is showing a series of films by a director who has since fallen seriously ill. Tong-su encounters an old friend, and it transpires that a reunion of the ill director’s classmates from film school is due to take place that night, to which Tong-su is invited, but may not be particularly welcome due to his past behaviour. Gradually, it appears that Tong-su, also a film maker, believes that the ill director has stolen his life story to make into a film, a fact which he quite clearly has never been able to get over or live up to. And so Tong-su wanders around the city, through many of the same locations, until he runs into the actress from the film, and attempts to live out the on-screen relationship.
Although the above may sound fairly familiar, Hong structures the narrative in a subtle manner, and never falls into either the cliché or pretensions of the usual ‘film versus reality’ plot. “Tale of Cinema” is quite obviously and markedly a film of two parts, though their joining is skilfully done, and in a manner which may take some time to fully sink in. It is at this bridging point that the film begins proper, and the viewer is slowly but surely drawn further into the story, as Hong cleverly and intricately links the two sections through a number of visual and thematic details. Indeed, “Tale of Cinema” begs for a second viewing and further analysis, as Hong fills almost every frame with meaning, revealing both the characters’ motivations and the director’s own concerns.
“Tale of Cinema” is thematically fascinating and open to a number of different interpretations, and Hong offers clues and suggestions rather than give simple answers or patronising the viewer by spelling things out. Hong is examining the ways in which fantasies can lead to self-delusion and bitterness by using the language and metaphor of cinema in a very humanistic fashion. As a result, the film is an almost meditative experience, and a rare example of cinema which encourages the viewer to think, and to do so openly and freely, not only about what is being shown, but about their own lives.
Hong’s direction is simplistic yet revealing, and he opts for an approach which is both realistic and at times self-consciously cinematic. This is most obvious through his use of zooming for emphasis, and to draw the viewer’s attention, generally to the reactions of characters. At times this is used a little over zealously, and as such works both to give the film an almost documentary feel, and to draw attention to its formal structure. Despite this, Hong allows the proceedings to develop in a fairly loose, organic style and with an exploratory, discursive aspect that allows the viewer to feel involved rather than as a mere onlooker.
It is this quality which really sets “Tale of Cinema” apart from other films, and makes it highly recommended to viewers who enjoy intelligent, challenging films. Although this is a film which certainly requires thought and work, it is one which offers considerable rewards, and which credits its audience with the ability to think and form their own ideas — a rare, inspiring trait which is all too rare in modern cinema.
Sang-soo Hong (director) / Sang-soo Hong (screenplay)
CAST: Sang-kyung Kim …. Kim Dong-soo
Ki-woo Lee …. Jeon Sang-won
Ji-won Uhm …. Choi Young-shil