15/10/2010 Leave a comment
Country: South Korea
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Kim Eui-sung, Lee Eung-kyung, Cho Eun-sook, Park Jin-song, Bang Eun-hee
1997 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1997 Rotterdam International Film Festival
1996 Vancouver International Film Festival
1997 APFF: Best New Director
1997 RIFF: Tiger Award
1996 VIFF: Dragons and Tigers Award
It is very tempting to infer that the title of Hong Sang-soo’s 1996 directorial debut “The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well” draws direct reference from the 1954 John Cheever novella “The Day The Pig Fell Into The Well”. I have yet to read the book and thus am unable to draw literary references between the book and the film. However, going by the brief abstract I found online, the book is a story about a New York family that never fails to remember, on random nights, the day the pig fell into the well and the other corresponding events that also occurred that very day – such is the impact such an out-of-the-ordinary event poses on an average person. It is tantamount to how it is alleged that most Britons are able to remember what they were doing the instant they heard that Princess Diana died in 1997, or how Michael Jackson fans can remember what they were up to when news of his death broke. “Pigs falling into wells” is definitely a more light-heated reference than death, but the gist is there, the awkwardness one experiences from the abrupt disruption to the routine of everyday lives.
This movie paints such a portrait, and the well in which the pig falls into is a metaphor for the city of Seoul in 1996, says director Hong Sang-soo in his interview notes (Pusan International Film Festival Daily, 1996, cited on asianmediawiki.com). The director, considered one of South Korea’s best contemporary auteurs, depicts four individuals seeking fulfillment amid the urban jungle that is Seoul and their progressive attitudes. Four separate stories come together through a running narrative thread as they go about their everyday routines in the city in an editing structure akin to future acclaimed films like Crash (2004) and Babel (2006), albeit the latter two films occurring in different locales. The movie intermingles the incidents of the four protagonists: Hyo-sub (a struggling novelist), Bo-kyung (housewife), Dong-woo (salesman) and Min-jae (box office girl) through unobtrusive storytelling techniques.
Through an inference of relations drawn within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we know that Hyo-sub is juggling two relationships at the same time. He is with Min-jae in the restaurant at (04:08; Part 2) and observed by Bo-kyung in a bookstore (00:20; Part 3). The prominence of the latter is amplified by Hong’s framing, as the secondary character in the distance remains in focus as Hyo-sup continually steals glances at the character. The scene then shifts to a hotel room as they engage in a tight embrace. The dialogue, frequently sexually-suggestive in the movie, includes lines like “Do you have sex with your husband?” as the camera casts a top-down shot on the couple sitting on the floor eating fruits (03:20; Part 3) in a whimsical scene that conveys lust and desire between the two characters, while harboring metaphorical references to the forbidden fruit of Adam and Eve. At 05:33, the camera cuts away to Hyo-sub, shirtless, sucking the toes of the woman in an erotic gesture that must be a fetish. He lovingly clings onto the feet of the woman, biting her toes, and the close-up sequence gives the viewer both a voyeuristic sense of spying into an intimate moment. Later on, different angles follow before the camera finally cuts to a top-down shot of the couple making love. The camera is high up in the ceiling and the wide shot creates the perspective of the couple being small in context of the room.
Hyo-sub the struggling novelist is despondent even in social situations such as the karaoke scene, where he sits despondently by the corner of the frame (03:26). To make matters worse, the waitress spills hot food on Hyo-sub, who reacts violently by throwing a tantrum. In a sign that nobody cares, the others move on with their respective conversations. At 05:26, the framing takes a wide angle such that we see the goings-on in the whole restaurant rather than an egocentric focus on the center of Hyo-sub’s universe. This creates an impression of how small an individual is in context to his/her surroundings, and no matter how he attempts to make a scene by thrusting himself in the center of attention, it is fruitless when people simply don’t care. The incident rears an ugly head when at 05:46 the camera frames the scene outside the restaurant with the door to the right and Hyo-sub on the telephone to the left. The waitress walks out and he kicks up a fuss, with his unreasonable attitude pissing her off. Alienated by his friends, he turns to a prostitute. The palpable sexual tension resonates between one very willing woman for the money and one very unwilling client. The woman appears stark naked on screen, and helps herself to the entire penetration act in a scene that is just weird. That is perhaps a problem that arose only because of the frequent jumps in character focus. This makes it virtually impossible to connect, to empathize or sympathize with any of the characters.
The main problem with such movies is how the focus jumps from character to character intangibly. They are introduced, ditched, and then brought forth again. It requires plenty of patience to understand the four separate narratives, and to glean an actual understanding of their connections. Yet it is indicative of Hong’s aesthetic and stylistic device that will be seen in Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) that has also been reviewed on this site. The slow pace of the movie makes it frustrating as the audience wills for something to happen. Even if Hong aspires to capture the essence of mundane humdrum nature of everyday life, there is usually much more going on. The muted emotions bottle up, only to be unleashed through sexually explicit scenes that sometimes occur without any distinct purpose. And it is a struggle, indeed, just to keep track of the disparate characters and how their story arc intersects with each other. If anything, this is a movie in which nothing much happens.