Hello readers and welcome to a new KultScene column dedicated to exposing the annals of Korean cinema. The Korean Film Archive is one of the great resources for Korean cinema fans on the web, and their Youtube channel is filled with touchstones, idiosyncrasies, and modern greats. Best of all, it’s free and subtitled. The quality of the films is not great but it’s hard to complain about that when everything else is so accessible. The aim of this column is to bring such an impressive asset to light while also learning about and critiquing Korean cinema history. Films to come include the oldest known Korean film still in print, work by kidnapped director Shin Sang Ok, and 80s erotica.
We’re starting with someone who is continuing the great trend of international acclaim for Korean cinema, Hong Sang Soo and his 1996 debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. Hong is one of the many Korean filmmakers who went to study film in the US in the 1990s. It was there where the most recent wave of Korean films developed their styles, similar to K-pop in that they collide eastern and western sensibilities to make something uniquely Korean. Hong is known for his on the surface simple but deeply thoughtful films that tackle adult problems. You may also know him for his alleged affair with actress Kim Min Hee, whom he worked with on his most recent film Right Now, Wrong Then. Take note, as this piece of information is not as irrelevant as it may seem now.
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The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well is split into four different segments with characters overlapping in each. The first is about author Hyo Sup (Kim Eui Sung), a deeply pathetic man who is having two simultaneous affairs. The second is about Tong Yoo (Park Jin Sung), a businessman who struggles with his own desires to have an affair and the fear that his wife is seeing someone else. The third is about cinema ticket seller Min Jae (Jo Eun Sook) who is one of Hyo Sup’s girlfriends and how she finds out about his other affair. The last is about Bo Kyung (Lee Eung Kyung), wife of Tong Yoo and the other mistress to Hyo Sup. While not quite as complicated as it might sound, Hong does not stop to explain things in great detail.
Each character was developed by a different writer but when filming came Hong went with an improvisational style. The unique scripting hardly shows as each actor seems perfectly balanced within the film. Due to Hong’s style they have to use their bodies more than their faces as close ups are rare. Kim Eui Song gets the most to do but still excels in his quieter moments, displaying a pitiful man like no other. Lee Eung Kyung also stands out with her constant unaffected but painful performance. Her character, Bo Kyung, is the most tragic of the piece due to her inability to act. Her segment involves a lot of walking around doing nothing yet we can feel her disposition changing as the film crawls to an end.
This world where seemingly everyone is having an affair seems like a complex and unbelievable one (although reality may be just as strange given a report that says half of Korean men cheat). Hong however, fills it with tiny details and minor characters who breathe life into it at every opportunity. Shot with a masterful straightforward eye, there’s rarely more than three shots for each scene with most of the action taking place in wide shots This way the secretive characters can’t hide from the viewer. When Hong does cut within a scene it’s nearly always to go in close on small details like a hand picking up a cigarette or playing with a bug. Through these gestures we get insights into the characters that their words don’t tell us. Each one has other things on their mind than what’s happening in front of them.
Taking cues from Italian neorealism, Hong also likes to linger on shots even after the main character has left the frame. It positions us in a world that is alive. A delivery boy getting on his scooter, a couple arguing in a hotel corridor, life outside the main characters exists and maybe they should take note to realise their selfishness. Minor characters with lines are also given personalities that come across well, particularly a waitress who fights back without hesitation and a girl who coughs a lot in one scene simply because she happens to have a cough not as some warning of her impending doom.
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Through this supremely crafted world our view of the characters can be laser focused. Hong’s opinion of these tangled people is obviously bleak. Each one possess a trait that prevents them from being honest with anyone around. Hyo Sup especially is seen as a destructive force to all. Despite his two girlfriends he seems a profoundly lonely man; he asks one publisher out for drinks but is rejected. He is offended when some of his friends didn’t invite him out but wriggles his way in anyway. This scene, where he goes out with some old college friends is one of the best. Hong makes great use of the Korean dinner table as they all sit around sizzling meat drinking soju. There’s a great tension to having the meat right in the centre of the frame, Hyo Sup’s own feelings bubble along with it. He is even framed to the right so we don’t have a full view of his face.It’s no surprise then that these feelings eventually pop dramatically.
Tong Yoo and Min Jae are the most ignorant of the lot. Tong Yoo’s segment shows him trying to make some sort of deal but continually being pushed back. His lack of reaction is telling in why Bo Kyung started having an affair. His part is the weakest as it slows things down too much after Hyo Sup’s dramatic start. There is one great moment where, as he is debating whether or not to have sex with a prostitute, he starts to fidget in bed. His body convulses wildly showing a man who is clearly troubled despite his seeming indifference. Min Jae’s naievty proves to be her downfall not with more than one toxic male.
As a whole it comes together devastatingly in the final segment. Despite being a bit too long and having some misplaced motivations for smaller characters, it’s a debut that sets out a great director’s career. It’s interesting that Hong’s affair scandal only came out recently as this film feels apologetic. Hyo Sup seems like a stand in for Hong, a portrayal of self-hatred that didn’t hold back. A man dealing with his flaws out in the open is immediately powerful but also a possible turn off. The way Hong does it however, is precise and powerful. His filmography is singular in this era of Korean cinema for being small in scale but deeper than any of his peers can attest to.
Full movie here.
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