Friday, April 13, 2012

Hong Sang-soo’s Oki’s Movie

They say one should write about what you know. Hong Sang-soo knows about film school, or at least his characters do. Their lives and films freely blur and overlap in his sort of but not really braided-story film, Oki’s Movie (trailer here), which opens this Monday at the Maysles Cinema as something of a ringer in their Documentary in Bloom film series.

Oki’s Movie is actually four short films featuring the same cast of characters or characters based on them. When we first meet Jingu in A Day for Incantation, he is a young film school instructor with a handful of less than enthusiastically received short films to his record. After psyching himself up to face a new day, he gets far too drunk at a faculty lunch, offending the department chairman, Professor Song, before leaving for a disastrous screening of one of his shorts. As King of Kisses opens, it would appear Incantation is Jingu’s thesis project, which Professor Song praises effusively. In fact, Jingu seems to be one of his favorites, but the student is more interested in wooing Oki, oblivious to her clearly implied relationship with Song.

In the sketchiest segment, After the Snowstorm, Song questions his academic career when only Oki and Jingu brave a snowstorm for his class. For their efforts, he entertains their meaning-of-life questions, answering with canned profundities. However, Oki’s Movie rebounds with the concluding titlle segment, in which Oki compares and contrasts two trips she took to Acha Mountain, first with Song and then with Jingu. Demonstrating a fascination with repeated cycles, Oki’s Movie, the sub-film, nicely leads into Hong’s The Day He Arrives, which as luck would have it, opens next Friday in New York.

Instinctively, viewers will want to impose a sequential order on Oki Movie, presumably beginning with the characters in their present day, followed by three successive flashbacks. However, Hong deliberately problematizes such linearity by consciously presenting the opening and closing segments as films-within-films (emphasized with their separate but identical credit sequences), with Oki apparently appearing as an actress in Jingu’s A Day for Incantation.

Despite his narrative puzzle-making, Hong is often compared to Woody Allen and it is easy to see why throughout drily witty Oki’s Movie. While his three major characters all rather self-centered and neurotic, he never judges them too harshly. Indeed, there are even moments of biting self-awareness, particularly from Oki, but also to a lesser extent from Song, rendered as an almost tragic figure in Oki’s short. By American standards, it is also a bit politically incorrect, deriving gleeful humor from the outrageous things said as a result of inebriation. While Hong never moralizes, he certainly shows the repercussions of over-indulgence.

Indeed, Hong is a master at depicting incidents of social awkwardness and the human foibles that magnify them. Lee Sun-kyun is quite the convincing blindered sad sack, but manages to keep Jingu relatively grounded. In contrast, Jung Yumi is a consistently intelligent and intriguing screen presence as Oki, the reluctant femme fatale.

In a sense, Hong represents the road too often not taken by postmodernists. Like his thematically related short Lost in the Mountains and his forthcoming The Day He Arrives, Oki is light and droll rather than dour and didactic. Even with its eccentric structure, it is a highly accessible film suitable for viewers who usually confine their international cinema patronage to relationship comedies in the French tradition. Solidly entertaining, Oki’s Movie is definitely worth a trip uptown when it screens Monday (4/16) through Sunday (4/22) at the Maysles Cinema.