Director Hong Sang-soo talks about process, collaboration, and drinking, without wasting a syllable.
Hong Sang-soo is often criticized for making the same film over and over again. It’s true, to a certain extent. His male characters are often artists of some kind—painters, directors, writers—who are socially and sexually inept, prone to episodes of drink-filled embarrassment and spontaneous arm-wrestling bouts. Formally, Hong returns to similar narrative structures and deliberate framing devices. This is not a criticism, though. What is remarkable about Hong, and viewing his work as something larger than the individual films attests to this, is how much he has been able to expand in what often seems to be a closed-off set of concerns, stripping away to arrive at something greater. The closest parallel I can draw is with the late novelist David Markson, who crafted a body of work that redefined what we think of as literature through the repeated, meticulous crafting of the same primary concerns.
A mini-retrospective of a handful of the director’s films opens at the Museum of the Moving Image on March 17. Mr. Hong, not one to reveal too many secrets, took some time to answer a few questions.
Craig Hubert Was film always a part of your life?
Hong Sang-soo No. I began studying film when I was 21. Now it has become the very important thing of my life.
CH Was there something you wanted to do before you started making films? Is there something else you still hope to do?
HS No, I was doing nothing before. I’m satisfied with making films.
CH When making a film, do you start with a scenario? Or do you begin with something smaller, such as a character, scene, or line of dialogue?
HS No, these days only with a very short treatment or piles of some notes. Usually I begin with some everyday situation. Then I think up some formal structure which enables me to see the situation in a certain way.
CH Can you talk about the gradual change over your career in the way you make films? I understand The Day a Pig Fell into the Well was more structured than some of your recent films, such as Oki’s Movie.
HS There must be some things that have changed, but I don’t want to be clear about that kind of thing, if I can.
CH What do you look for in an actor?
HS Many things. But I don’t know them very well.
CH You’ve worked with a few actors multiple times. Do you prefer to work with people who you have previously formed relationships with?
HS Sometimes, for some actors.
CH What about working with actors? Is it a collaborative process?
HS Of course. They give me so much. I give them something.
CH I know you recently worked with Isabelle Huppert. Why did you want to work with her, and what was the experience like?
HS I have liked her very much as an actress. It was a great experience. I thank her for many things.
CH How important is location in your work? What do you look for in a location?
HS Very much. Some things seem to be right for me.
CH Night and Day was shot in Paris, a change from your usual locations in and around Seoul. Is there anywhere else you would like to shoot a film someday?
HS I don’t know yet.
CH I’ve always been intrigued by the use of music in your films. What is the process of choosing the music for each film?
HS I work with a composer as I work with my actors.
CH Drinking is a social ritual that appears in many, if not all of your films. What about drinking remains important to you?
HS I like drinking with people I work with. Also with people I like.
CH If I may ask: What is your favorite drink?
HS These days, sake.
CH A small detail in many of your films that I’ve been curious about: arm wrestling. Male characters often engage in the act, and it often ends awkwardly. Can you talk a little about why it’s something you return to?
HS It’s cute.
CH You’ve had a prolific career, especially in the last few years. What inspires you to continue making films?
HS Almost nothing else to do.
For more information on upcoming screenings of Hong’s films click here.
Craig Hubert is a writer based in New York City.