By Adam Hartzell
Originally from Berea, Ohio, Adam Hartzell now lives in San Francisco where he’s nurtured a strong interest in Korean film. He manages the bibliography at Darcy Paquet’s Korean film website, www.koreanfilm.org, where he also contributes many reviews and essays. Currently he is working on an essay about HONG Sang-soo’s The Power of Kangwon Province for a soon to be published book on Korean and Japanese film.
Every time I return to the films of HONG Sang-soo, new insights and reflections on us humans arise. Much of the power of Hong’s work has to do with the fact that he tosses aside cinematic conventions. He refuses to happy-end his films. As Kyung Hyun Kim argues, “He refuses to grant us pleasure at all.” His heroes are not anti-heroes as much as they are exercises in humiliation.
The cinematic cliché that Hong subverts which most resonates with me is his de-sentimentalizing of relationships. Hong challenges the romantic cliché of “True Love.” Hong doesn’t challenge these clichés through the use of cynicism as he’s so often accused . He is not telling us to forgo love, nor telling us that True Love is a lie. He’s not of the opinion that Love Stinks. No, Hong simply strips romantic relationships of all their accoutrements to show us the ambivalent partners we really are. We have moments of True Love, but those moments are fleeting. With the fantasy removed, we can see what we really have to work with. From that starting point, in concert with our partners, we can begin building relationships that are more life affirming. Rather than creating pessimism, Hong creates hope for what we can become as partners.
The particular facet of Hong’s de-romanticizing romance that I wish to discuss in this essay is Hong’s trope of “Unsexy Sex.” The sex scenes in The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), and Turning Gate (2002) all have one thing in common: They are not sexy. What I mean by “not sexy” is that they are not scenes that allow for the buildup and experience of sexual pleasure on a voyeuristic level. Hong prohibits any sexual pleasure from viewing his scenes where sex is implied. Hong utilizes two tactics to unsexy his sex scenes: something prior to the sex scene readies us with discomfort or something enters the scene that disrupts the sexiness that was transpiring.
The Power of Kangwon Province follows a young female college student, Jisook (OH Yoon-hong) and a college professor, Sangkwon (BAEK Jong-hak), on their separate sojourns into the mountains of Kangwon Province. We learn that these two people had an affair that had ended just prior to their trip to Kangwon. The film contains four basic sex scenes, none of which is pleasurable for the viewer. Each scene comes with baggage Hong requires us to carry into the scene and keep with us so as not to expect any sense of sexy. The first two scenes involve Jisook and the Policeman (KIM Yoo-suk) both in a state of drunkenness. Jisook had been looking for her friends just before the Policeman took her into his room. Her friend Eunkyoung (PARK Hyun-young) had left the couple alone prior to that after receiving indirect reassurance from the Policeman that Jisook wouldn’t be taken advantage of. However, despite Eunkyoung’s indirect efforts, Jisook and the Policeman end up making out on his cot. Jisook thanks the policeman for taking care of her and her friends at the moment when the Policeman is acting with the least concern for Jisook’s well-being. Hong takes leave of the scene without confirming whether or not the two had sex. We are not sure if anything happened, but we are sure we wouldn’t feel good about it if something did. The next sex scene occurs after Jisook returned to visit the Policeman alone. Drunk, again, Jisook whines much protest to the Policeman’s advances in a motel room. This scene makes clear that no sex occurred, having them wake up separately from one another. In this scene, the audience is comforted with the results because the buildup presented us a couple that shouldn’t have sex. Thankfully, they didn’t.
The other two sex scenes both involve Sangkwon. His tryst with a prostitute exhibits all the sexiness of working a fax machine. The prostitute’s mechanic, commodified movements are followed with commands that Sangkwon hurry up and not mess up her hair in the process. The next sex scene involving Sangkwon involves Jisook. They have returned to a Love Motel to make out. Jisook reveals to Sangkwon that she’s had an abortion, one of the unsexiest comments one could utter while making out with someone. Rather than comfort Jisook, Sangkwon eventually asks for a blowjob that Jisook willingly gives. Jisook’s confession of her abortion warrants emotional comfort. What Sangkwon asks for is a complete withdrawal from any emotional intimacy, tainting the fellatio with enough discomfort that the audience receives it with no pleasure.
In Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, the sex scenes are stilted and thwarted by the female lead’s solely traumatic sexual experiences, (Soojung, played by LEE Eun-joo), and the male lead’s impatience, (Jaehoon, played by JUNG Bo-seok). Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors presents a narrative of the two characters getting to know each other from three perspectives: Jaehoon’s memory, Soojung’s memory, and privileged viewer. Two scenes provide examples of how scenes, which appear to be leading us towards sexy, are unsexy-ed in Hong’s films. When Jaehoon travels to the city of Ansan to meet up with Soojung in a hotel, this is in Jaehoon’s perspective, we are led to believe we are witnessing a sexy scene. Jaehoon suckles Soojung’s breasts as Soojung cradles his head, which she kisses. But Jaehoon’s frustration, almost anger, with Soojung regarding her further refusals of intercourse intrudes the sexiness towards which this scene appeared headed. Later, the same scene from Soojung’s perspective, we see a more fully bare-chested Soojung with her arms way above her head, arched in ecstasy as Jaehoon suckles her breasts and rubs between her legs. The erotic charge of this moment is disrupted by Jaehoon calling Soojung by another woman’s name. It’s all over after that. All sexiness is lost.
Soojung’s character is a virgin in the sense that she’s never had intercourse. However, she has had sexual relations that didn’t involve intercourse, all of which were either traumatic or clearly not desired by her. Soojung’s perspective of the film shows us a scene where her older brother, who is possibly developmentally disabled, urges her to give him a handjob. She resists quite assuredly but eventually gives in to stop his whining. Later, we witness Soojung’s boss attempting to rape her, which she is able to thwart. However, he is unsympathetic to her calling his actions what they are, rape. “Rape? Rape, my foot!” he exclaims.
Obviously, due to the unequal power relations, those two scenes are so discomforting, sexiness doesn’t even come into the picture. And the audience is asked to keep Soojung’s past experiences with them when witnessing the final sex scene. Further unsexy-ing this scene is the fact that it is set around a lie. Presented in the perspective of privileged viewer, Jaehoon promises Soojung he won’t hurt her. But, as evidenced through her painful yelps, he does hurt her. And he doesn’t stop. It is an extremely disturbing scene to watch. We don’t receive any pleasure from this scene, only disgust and a wish that Jaehoon would live up to his promise and stop hurting her. The audience is one with Soojung in this scene, experiencing her pain along with her. When they tell each other they love each other at the end of the film, the section of the film told by the privileged narrator, we know that Jaewoon’s lie has continued, sadly, with Soojung taking part in the ‘I Love You’ lie as well.
Turning Gate portrays an actor recently turned down for a role meeting up with an old friend to escape from his Seoul for a while. During this excursion he meets two women enamored with him in different ways. Whether or not the actor, Kyungsoo, (KIM Sang-kyoung, learns that much about himself, the audience definitely learns much about him through his actions and statements. As in Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Turning Gate also disrupts the sexiness of the sex scenes. However, this time they are not unsexy-ed by discomforting intrusions such as uncaring men or physical pain. Most often, this film uses humor to unsexy. Kyungsoo makes the first sex scene unsexy by wondering aloud why Myongsuk (YEH Ji-won) won’t look at him while they’re having sex. Kyungsoo’s question disrupts the scene, providing it with clumsiness rather than fluidity. Later Myongsuk is pouts about Kyungsoo not being in love with her. Kyungsoo then re-enters her, much to the discomfort of Myongsuk. However, when Kyungsoo starts moving his hips in a way that causes Myongsuk to admit “You could please any woman if you do this,” the scene becomes absolutely laughable. The dialogue between the two is so bizarre that any sexual pleasure on the part of the viewer is replaced with laughter. Later, when having sex with Sunyoung (SANG Mi-chu), Hong returns to the moves that Myongsuk loved and Kyungsoo asks “Do you like my moves?” to confirm his prowess. Sunyoung’s answer is not an answer, but a command, “Please don’t ejaculate inside me. Soon, Kyungsoo asks again about his moves. And, again, Sunyoung’s does not provide confirmation, but declaration, “I don’t want to get pregnant.” The only pleasure we’re allowed in these scenes is the pleasure of laughter through Kyungsoo’s concern about his moves. Sunyoung’s concerns about pregnancy unsexy the scene even further.
The final sex scene invokes humor as well, such as when Sunyoung squeezes one of her breasts and asks Kyungsoo to appraise them. However, humor is not the only tool used to strip the sexy from this scene. The scene began with reality stepping in to disrupt the sexiness. Kyungsoo finds himself unable to maintain an erection that will allow for intercourse. His impotence forces them to talk rather than fuck. When Kyungsoo begins to talk about Sunyoung’s husband, Sunyoung loses her interest in sex. But when Kyungsoo tells her he loves her, this is when she seeks appraisal from him of her breasts. Plummeting his head in between them, Sunyoung begins to stroke Kyungsoo to help him become erect. Kyungsoo inhibits this moment by asking Sunyoung if she wants to die together. “I don’t want sex anymore. Just die, pure and innocent. This is not talking dirty. Bringing death into the picture, we lose our brief voyeuristic pleasure like Kyungsoo lost his erection.
In every sex scene of these three films, Hong disrupts in someway to keep the scene from becoming yet another example of voyeuristic pleasure. Such unsexy sex is a welcome subversion in Asian film. Hong refuses to Orientalize, that is, to eroticize and exoticize his Asian characters for Western consumption. He’s not reinforcing Western stereotypes of the exotic, hypersexual Asian woman. At the same time, he’s not reinforcing the Western stereotype of the de-sexualized Asian male. Unsexy-ing is not de-sexing. His men are attractive and desirable. Hong’s sex scenes simply refuse to perpetuate stereotypes or clichés about Asian bodies as solely meant for a Westerner’s viewing pleasure. Hong refuses to Orientalize because he refuses to direct for Westerners. He has said his films are written for Koreans. Apparently, Westerners never come into his pictures so their stereotypes of the exotic Oriental don’t either.
As Hong de-sentimentalizes to show relationships that are real rather than romanticized, using unsexy sex as one of his techniques to establish a de-sentimentalized view, Hong allows us to see sex closer to its reality. Sex can be blissful, orgasmic, fun, and spiritual, but it can also be painful, clumsy, messy, and/or wrong. We often have sex to escape our reality. When we seek this escape, we are more likely to ignore our partner’s needs and their pleasure. Hong won’t allow us to escape. Reality will always disrupt. Ironically, through Hong’s disruptions, he shows us the hope of relationships through survival of the discomforts. In showing us the horrors/humiliations of sex, he provides hope for the ecstasy of sex as well.
Interestingly, Hong appears to be gradually developing a more mature cinematic sex scene through his insistence to disrupt sexiness. The Power of Kangwon Province shows us sex scenes that are discomforting in how unhealthy they are and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors takes this even further showing instances where sex is clearly wrong. Turning Gate presents a scenario of more mature sex where the mature body inhibits the act. Impotency is not seen here as a problem which we need to overcome with Viagra. It is seen as a teacher, or at least a teaching moment where a different type of closeness can be reached. What can bring us closer than talking, naked, with a partner about death?
And death, as much as we seek to ignore it, is always with us. Let’s just accept it for what it is, Hong appears to say. As if challenging the Hollywood commentators who tell us that we go to movies to escape, Hong knows many of us go to confront that which we can’t escape. We can’t escape the ambivalences surrounding our relationships as much as we try to romanticize them. We can’t escape the ambivalence towards life or our ambivalence towards death. As much as we may think we’re too sexy for it, reality will keep disrupting. We might as well learn from it, take inventory, and grow, together.
1. Kim, Kyung Hyun. The Awkward Flaneur: Reading the Fictions of Hong Sang-soo and Kim Sang-ok. Unpublished manuscript presented at the Hong Sang-soo Retrospective at the University of California, Irvine, October 24, 2002.
2. Hartzell, Adam. My Moments with the Master, HONG Sang-Soo. http://www.koreanfilm.org/hongss1.html, October, 2002.
3. I am limiting “sex scenes” to mean those scenes where characters are in or near a bed with the intent to be physical in some way. Many of these scenes do not culminate in the characters having sex, but the context of exploring the sexual realm of their relationships within the space of the bed can be easily inferred.
4. Unfortunately, I have yet to have access to Hong’s first film The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996) outside of one single viewing too long ago, and when I was too tired, to trust my recall ability. Thus, I have had to leave that film out of all my discussions regarding Hong’s oeuvre until opportunities for sufficient re-viewings are provided.