March 17, 2012

The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well: The Brutal Beginnings of Auteur Hong Sang-soo

It's easy to think you've got an artist figured out after watching a few films. And after seeing Woman on the Beach, Night and Day, and the short Lost in the Mountains among others, I thought I knew what to expect from a Hong Sang-soo movie and quite frankly, I wasn't that impressed. There'd be some heavy drinking, some philosophical talking and some unsatisfactory sex, as men used clingy women and disappointed women griped. Even in The Power of Kangwon Province, the movie of his I probably like the best, the same elements remained.

But summing up a career based on your acquaintanceship with a handful of works is a big mistake. Imagine judging Woody Allen on Celebrity, Cassandra's Dream, and September or assessing Bernardo Bertolucci strictly on Little Buddha, Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers. Big mistake! Which is another way of saying that I may have written off Hong Sang-soo a little too soon.

His feature debut, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, isn't a great movie but it's a pretty interesting one. And yes, you still have the drinking, the abusing, and the longing but with this particular flick all of that's heightened quite a bit. The arrogant artist -- no stranger to Hong's ouevre -- is a super jerk here. If this is Hong's stand-in, he started his career a lot less sympathetic to his type. A failed writer with a real sense of entitlement and a persecution complex, Hyo-sub (Kim Eui-sung) is a cantankerous diva who picks fights with a girlfriend he doesn't like (Cho Eun-sook), a married woman he claims to love (Lee Eun-kyeong), and all his drinking buddies, including one played by Song Kang-ho in his big screen debut!

This time around, the bickering doesn't culminate in a shouting match. Indeed, what distinguishes The Day a Pig Fell in the Well from other Hong movies is that it's meaner and nastier to start and bloodier and more bewildering at the end. It's also infinitely more enigmatic. The final sequence of the movie flashes back and forward in time, both real and imagined. Whether the brutal realities depicted in those jarring sequences are reflecting internal or external states doesn't matter. Hong's first drama comes at you with both fists flying and you're likely to feel stunned and bruised and even a bit disoriented by the time the credits roll. It's not a knockout but it does pack a wallop.

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