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The Subtlety of Language, According to Hong Sang-soo

With his latest films, the ever-prolific director accentuates the nuances of communication, inviting audiences to take a leap of faith.

By Jawni Han

November 16, 2023

From In Our Day, 2023, dir. Hong Sangsoo, courtesy of Cinema Guild.

One returns to certain filmmakers either for the comfort of knowing exactly what to expect from them or for their capacity to endlessly subvert the audience’s expectations with each new release. Hong Sang-soo’s 29th and 30th films at the 61st New York Film Festival, do both. While In Our Day (2023) and In Water (2023) deliver on presenting familiar actors and Hong’s signature techniques such as zoom and two shots, these new films showcase Hong’s first attempt at integrating Korean language’s many idiosyncrasies into his formal designs.

Hong’s devotion to auto-fiction continues in In Water. Deliberately shot out of focus, its impressionistic images are a painful reminder of the filmmaker’s deteriorating eyesight, first addressed in Introduction (2021) which features a character devastated by her impending blindness. In Water follows a young man named Seoung-mo who is on a mission to make a film in Jeju Island with the help of his old friends Sang-guk and Nam-hee. Reminiscent of Hong’s own filmmaking method, Seoung-mo has no clue what he sets about to make. He only has a location and an actor in mind. Much of the film observes these characters wandering around different corners of Jeju, hoping to receive artistic inspiration from the island’s beautiful seaside vistas. None of this is new for Hong, but he uses the familiar autobiographical premises as a launchpad to incorporate spoken Korean as the film’s central formal device. The dialogue in In Water, as a formal category, provides clues to the obfuscated facial expressions of its three characters and landscapes, and therefore its narrative content.

From In Water, 2023, dir. Hong Sangsoo, courtesy of Cinema Guild.

For one, because the film’s images are blurred to the point that it is not always possible to discern any facial details of the characters, the viewer has to take a leap of faith that all of the spoken words are delivered as dialogue, as opposed to as voiceover. Furthermore, many of the film’s long shots in which the characters are turned away from the camera makes the leap all the more necessary. This “leap,” however, takes on a different meaning if one entertains the possibility that some of the spoken words are actually voiceovers. In his monograph on Hong’s sixth film Tale of Cinema (2005), film curator Dennis Lim calls the sudden use of the first person voice over in the film’s final moment “a sonic equivalent of a zoom.” Curiously, zooming, along with focus, is missing throughout In Water—ostensibly, at least. But, the film can abound with zooms if the viewer takes a leap of faith that some of these words give them direct access to the characters’ interior thoughts. The leap, then, becomes the movement of zooming in on the characters’ consciousness. It is then up to the viewer whether to zoom or not.

There is one scene, however, where the sonic zoom is imposed on the viewer. On his visit to the beach near his hotel, Seoung-mo comes across a local resident picking up garbage left behind by tourists. Seoung-mo approaches her and introduces himself. His sentences during the introduction, like most of the dialogue in the film up until this point, include subjects and objects. Korean is famously a context-dependent language that often omits subjects and objects, especially in a colloquial form. As if to compensate for the missing details in the film’s visual, Hong is very careful about delivering grammatically complete dialogue. But, after Seoung-mo’s introduction, the word “I” suddenly disappears from his sentences. The woman picking up the garbage, on the other hand, makes sure to include “I,” but omits “you” in her speech. On top of that, because she is masked, the viewer cannot be entirely sure if she is actually speaking. Could it be that Seoung-mo’s “I” disappears because the viewer is directly seeing what is happening in his consciousness? This interpretation becomes all the more plausible, considering that Hong likes to insert random dream sequences in his films. Here, the absence of certain words intervenes and complicates what is otherwise an unremarkable scene.

From In Water, 2023, dir. Hong Sangsoo, courtesy of Cinema Guild.

In Our Day, by contrast, has both sharp images and visual zooms, but is similar to In Water due to its parallel narrative structure, which follows two seemingly unrelated groups of characters. On the one hand, Sang-won, a former actress who lives with her college senpai Jung-soo, is visited by her distant niece Jisu, an aspiring actress. On the other hand, Ui-ju, an old poet, spends his day in the presence of two youngsters: Ki-joo, a film student working on her thesis film about the poet, and Sang-guk, an actor who seeks wisdom from Ui-ju. Both parties drink, smoke cigarettes, and freely exchange their feelings and thoughts; in other words, a typical Hong narrative. Hong deliberately leaves the relationship between the two stories ambiguous though they overlap in certain moments throughout the film. Namely, the younger characters from the two groups seek life advice from their elders and the elders have a penchant for adding chili pepper paste in their ramen noodles. However, again like In Water, spoken words constitute the central formal device around which In Our Day revolves.

The two gen-z women of the film, Ji-soo and Ki-joo, have markedly different manners of speech. While Ki-joo speaks in a very convincingly gen-z way—casual, yet still respectful of formal speech and honorifics unique to Korean—Ji-soo’s speech sounds forced and wooden. At times, Ji-soo’s vernacular, completely drowned in Korean’s formal speech patterns, sounds comically like something one would hear in Korean movies made during the country’s military dictatorship period. More specifically, whenever tension arises between Ji-soo and Sang-won, her speech attains the kind of woodenness reminiscent of Kim Ki-young’s unnaturally stylized dialogue that is meant to disrupt the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. The idiosyncrasy of Ji-soo’s speech defines her relationship to her aunt. Although Hong does not provide any exposition on their family history, the tone of her dialogue alone gives the viewer enough information to speculate. More than likely, Ji-soo has conversed with Sang-won only a handful of times throughout her life. She genuinely needs guidance and wants to learn from her aunt, but she is hesitant to be vulnerable. This is most noticeable when Ji-soo responds to Sang-won’s innocuous, yet pointed questions with passive aggressive questions. All of sudden, Ji-soo switches to even more formal honorific terms that are usually reserved for addressing authority figures. Hong’s decision to juxtapose Ji-soo’s dialogue with Ki-joo’s naturalistic one —and it is a revelation that Hong, now 63, has such a wonderful ear for the fine details of intergenerational Korean speech styles—further accentuates the jarringness of it all.

From In Our Day, 2023, dir. Hong Sangsoo, courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Even the title of the film displays Hong’s attention to Korean as not just the language of his films but as a tool of cinema, not unlike cinematography or blocking. The Korean title of the film can be translated in two ways: either Our Day or Woori’s Day. Woori is the name of Jeong-soo’s cat that means we/us in Korean. Therefore, the point of view represented in the title offers numerous interpretive frameworks. Since the gen z and young millennial characters in the film seem adrift in their career choices, the subplot involving Woori gone missing attains a greater level of poignancy—”Woori has disappeared” can also mean “we have disappeared.” In Water and In Our Day seem to indicate Hong’s growing interest in working with inspirations other than his own life. With In Front of Your Face (2021), starring Lee Hye-young whose legendary filmmaker father often worked with Hong’s producer mother back in the 60’s, he put his autofictional project in dialogue with his family history and the history of Korea’s national cinema. Here, Hong lets his mother tongue shape his films’ designs. It would be a stretch to argue that In Water and In Our Day are films about the Korean language, but they are certainly films that could only have been made in Korean.