For those familiar with the work of South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, it is perhaps not so surprising that he has two titles in this year’s official Cannes lineup. After all, Hong has been widely hailed as a “minimal realist” in the tradition of French greats like Eric Rohmer — about which Hong nonchalantly tells The Hollywood Reporter, “I think it’s a job for other people to put forward those comparisons or labels. I just do what I can do. If someone tells me, ‘You are a minimal realist,’ then all I can do is to answer, ‘Oh, really?!’”
The prolific 55-year-old has made 21 films since his 1996 debut, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, which renowned Korean film critic Kim Young-jin said “marked the modernization of South Korean cinema.” Just three months after On the Beach at Night Alone debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Hong will bring to Cannes The Day After, a stark relationship drama shot in black and white, which is in the main competition, and out-of-competition entry Claire’s Camera, which reteams the director with French screen icon Isabelle Huppert five years after their previous collaboration, Another Country, vied for the main prize in 2012.
One reason, perhaps, why Hong is able to make movies so quickly is that he abandoned writing traditional screenplays years ago, instead relying on instinct and inspiration while penning treatments. “I’ve come to the point where I start with almost nothing,” Hong says. “As time went on, the treatments became shorter, to the point where I’d start production with only a few pages of notes.”
For both of his Cannes titles, Hong secured a minimal number of locations, and “for the sake of the actors” told them the essentials about the characters they play. He begins writing out the scenes for the day’s filming at about 4 a.m. each morning. Actors then memorize dialogue for a scene during scant preparation time. “They don’t have much time to memorize,” he says, explaining that the cast has 30 minutes — at most — to rehearse.
“I make use of the things that come to me while shooting as I incorporate them into an evolving whole,” he says. “I don’t even know what I know about a given actor. And I don’t try to organize or explain what I know. But on the day of shooting, the particular situation and the conditions of the film come together to create a kind of pressure. That pressure allows a few things among the many thoughts and feelings I have about this actor to come out. I write them down.”
Moreover, he says he tries “to see them as people, not actors.” “I try not to lose those faint and elusive memories from the past that are evoked from meeting that actor. And we make an effort to speak honestly with each other,” he said.
Asked if he faced any difficulties or “happy accidents” while filming Claire’s Camera in just two weeks, he said no. It was, however, difficult at times to secure shooting locations. “I think that while I shoot, I often encounter ‘happy accidents,’ to borrow your phrase. I anticipate them and make use of them day by day, until shooting wraps.”
Hong’s organic, if not spontaneous, filmmaking process is sometimes seen as blurring the line between the real and imagined, as actors are placed in situations that aren’t completely controlled. Yet Hong does not pay much heed to making such distinctions.
“It doesn’t seem to be useful to distinguish between real and fake in a film,” he said. “When something is expressed in a film, some people might find that expression more realistic than others. If actors freely show themselves in a natural flow, then the film captures this surface really well, and that is something really worth watching.”
The act—or art perhaps—of watching, however, does reoccur in the two films. Claire in Claire’s Camera believes that the very act of photographing changes the subject matter, while a wife’s suspicious gaze triggers unlikely events in The Day After.
“I think the act of looking always exerts an influence on the other person. But most of the time, that influence is fleeting or superficial,” he said. “I think if the person looking steps past his own limitations, then a kind of strength or resonance from the overcoming of his own limitations is transmitted to the person being looked at. So there might be a qualitative change in the person being looked at. In the end, the mysterious closeness between two people enables the one who is looking to step past his boundaries.”
When it comes to art imitating life in his work, he says he tries to maintain a balance. If his work becomes too autobiographical he would”have no space to move as a creator” because he would be “too conscious of the real models from my life.” And yet he does wish to retain “a certain degree of closeness, because if I put my own flesh and blood into a film, it makes it more difficult to lose the sincerity toward the film that I am making.”
As for what he’ll do next, in typical Hong fashion, he says he isn’t sure: “When I finish a film, I tend to fix a time to shoot my next film. I’m thinking that October of this year might be a good time to shoot something. As to what I’ll shoot, I have no idea.”
This story first appeared in the May 21 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
May 23, 6:25 p.m. Updated with additional quotes not published on print.