Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Young People in Love and Nostalgia: Reflections on Hong Sang-soo’s Oki’s Movie

I’ve seen a good number of Hong Sang-soo movies by now—and reviewed several of them for this blog; I think Hong might be the most reviewed filmmaker on Say a Prayer for the Octopus—and I think Oki’s Movie (2010) might be one of my favorites.  It certainly has a sweetness to it that one doesn’t always find in his other movies.  Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t follow the general framework of the Hong Sang-soo movie: film students, film teachers, filmmakers (often with overlap between them) go to restaurants, get drunk, say upsetting things to each other, and then pursue ill-advised romantic (mis)adventures.  And we certainly get that with Oki’s Movie.  But the sweetness at the heart of it tempers the more overt viciousness that we see in such Hong features as Woman is the Future of Man or Woman on the Beach.

Oki’s Movie is divided into four sections and five time periods (Hong is fond of fragmentation; The Power of Kangwon Province is split into two distinct sections and his recent Another Country into three).  The film follows, from end to beginning to places in between, the awkward love triangle between a film student turned filmmaker/teacher, Nam Jingu, a film student who may or may not have become a filmmaker, the titular Oki, and the late middle-aged film professor Song who vies with Jingu for Oki’s affections. (And before we proceed any further, the reader is warned that spoilers abound!)

The first vignette depicts an aging Professor Song and the newly minted film instructor Jingu as the latter’s life turns to shit.  He’s married to a woman who holds him in contempt (and is possibly cheating on him with his cousin), he can’t get money to make new films, and he makes a fool of himself in front of his colleagues and his students.  And his plight is rendered all the more sad as we travel back in time to see him and Oki just a few years earlier, as fresh-faced college students.

Oki and Jingu are a sweet couple and seem like generally good young people (although Jingu, like everyone else in a Hong movie, drinks way too goddam much, even though he knows from painful experience that alcohol causes him to act like an idiot).  Jingu is deeply in love with Oki, who doesn’t seem to know what to make of him at first; she’s also not sure why someone would find her romantically interesting.  Oki is something of a mystery (one of Hemingway’s icebergs, to be sure).  When Jingu comes a-wooing, she tries to scare him away by saying, “You know I’m a mess, right?” But on the surface, at least, she really doesn’t seem to be (at this point we’ve only had hints of her relationship with Professor Song); she seems to have her shit together.  And she and Jingu have a very tender scene in bed together (in contrast to similar scenes in Hong’s films, where the characters rarely have sex without being drunk and hysterical).  It’s very refreshing to see sex depicted as something pleasant and affectionate, both in a Hong movie and in general.

The third vignette—and by far the shortest in the film—depicts a single incident: following a big snowstorm, Oki and Jingu are the only students to show up for their class with Professor Song.  Now, where this takes place in the timeline, I’m not quite sure.  Jingu is wearing the same jacket in this vignette as he was in the previous one, so it’s roughly the same time period; is it before or after he and Oki start dating?  And have Oki and Professor Song ended their relationship by this point?  It’s hard to say.  All three of them seem very comfortable with each other, so perhaps this scene represents a tranquil period after Oki and Song have broken up but before things have intensified with Jingu. 

Because there aren’t any other students present, Song, understandably, doesn’t want to do any actual teaching, so he asks Oki and Jingu if they have any questions for him.  And what follows is something of a catechism. “Is it wrong to want an easy life?” “How do you overcome sexual desire?” “Is love important?” “Am I special?” (That last one from Oki.) “Do you love someone?” The answers to these questions are: There’s no such thing, you don’t, try not to think about it, someone thinks you’re special, and yes I do, respectively.  It should also be said that Song seems to envy Oki and Jingu their youth, whereas Oki at least would like to be older (or so she tells Song).  Jingu would also probably like to be older: he clearly has a deep respect for the older Professor Song, while he thinks that most of his own contemporaries are immature idiots.

The final section of the film is called “Oki’s Movie,” and is supposed to be a film that Oki made (whether as a student or a professional, I’m not sure, but I get the impression based on her narration that it’s a student film) in which she reflects on her relationships with Song and Jingu.  It depicts a trip she took with Song to Mt. Acha (which I gather is on the outskirts of Seoul) and another trip taken to the mountain with Jingu a few years later.  “Oki’s Movie” jumps back and forth between the two trips, and we see each stage of the trip with each man as they occur (so a visit to the restroom with Song is followed by a visit to the restroom with Jingu, etc).

In her voiceover, Oki says she made the film because she wanted to compare the two men side by side.  The making of this film must have been a nostalgia trip for Oki.  And one wonders where she is in life; where is the voice of the narrator coming from?  Has her life turned out to be just as disappointing as Jingu’s?  Were these outings to Mt. Acha perhaps the highlight of her life?  In Mike Leigh’s 1993 masterpiece Naked—a nightmare of life in post-Thatcherite Britain—the arch-pessimist Johnny has a rant—and I’m paraphrasing here—where he says, “Have you ever thought that maybe you’ve already had the absolute best moment of your life? And that everything was inevitably downhill after that?” Which is cruel but logical, if you think about it: Surely there is a moment or an experience in one’s life that qualifies as “the best,” however one wants to evaluate that.  It follows that everything that comes after is inherently inferior.  Now, that doesn’t mean it’s bad, necessarily, if you’re having a generally good life.  But suppose you aren’t? Then the absolute best moment stands out in ever sharper relief, and positively haunts you.  Is this what has happened to Oki? Were these relationships, potentially tumultuous though they may have been, the best moments of her life?  What does she feel when she looks back at them? Anguish? Longing? Regret?

God, being a young person is a risky business, and Hong approaches it in Oki’s Movie with an unusually (for him) strong sense of compassion for poor, ignorant young people.  Many of his films depict people entering into middle age and desperately trying to salvage their youth.  In Oki’s Movie, we get to see what these middle-aged film people were like before everything went wrong for them.  Let it serve as a cautionary tale for us.

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