I've finally sat down to watch my first film by Hong Sang-soo, making my way through the wonky subtitles on The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well!
Despite that subtitle difficulty I liked the film very much and the way a rather banal love triangle set up gets explored through the four segments focusing on each of the four people primarily involved. I especially liked the way that the film is bookended by what could be considered as the 'main' characters in a normal film, the couple whose illicit meetings behind the backs of their girlfriend and husband respectively spark off all the trouble. The structure of moving from the novelist lover to salaryman husband, then from theatre and temp worker girlfriend to the philandering wife also creates a interesting male/female split symmetry in the film.
The main couple of lovers open up and close down the film but in between we get sections that follow their other halves in their own lives, mostly involved with just trying to keep the basics of life and work continuing with the worries about the breaking up of a relationship in the back of their minds, which we them at different stages of (the husband seems all too aware of his wife's infidelities with little proof for certain or knowledge of who she might be seeing, while the girlfriend only finds out about the relationship when she accidentally sees them together near the end of her sequence).
I very much like the way that this is just really the organising structure for the film though, and that the most interesting aspects of the film occur within these individual sequences themselves in the relationships these separate, and often separated from each other, characters have with co-workers, friends and family, even strangers. Their interactions are inflected by the difficult private relationships they are having, and reflect onto this wider structure for the audience as well as providing them with understandable motivations for why for example the novelist ends up alienating his co-workers and going to court after a brawl, or why the husband picks up a prostitute, why the girl finds it difficult to fake sex noises for an impromptu anime dubbing session, or why the wife reacts so strongly to the picture of her family in happier times being used in a photographic studio's advertising display.
Then there are the thematic links between different segments. The girl's almost naive belief in a romantic form of love suggested by her strong reaction to reading the novelist's manuscript (while he goes outside and tellingly toys with a bug, perhaps making the suggestion that he sees writing as a similar form of manipulation of another being) prevents her from being able to 'fake it' for the anime dubbing, as well as leads her to fatally rebuff another suitor. This could be contrasted with the older wife's perhaps more pragmatic attitude towards the affair - that it is a fling (the way that she attempts to leave when the novelist complains/whines that she still has sex with her husband while seeing him suggests both that he doesn't really understand the workings of an affair and her own knowledge that she cannot really look to him as understanding of her own position). This opens up ideas of affairs being more significant as a motivator to try and leave a problematic relationship - in the wife's final segment she even packs her bags and tries to see the novelist again, but since he has been unavoidably detained(!) she wanders the streets, returns to his apartment and then back to her husband in a similar 'there and back' structure that mirrors the larger structure of the film itself.
This leads to questions about what caused the breakdown of the marriage? And in her inability to contact the novelist she is pushed into confronting what seem to be the 'real' reasons for their relationship breakdown - an encounter with a relative(?) and her young son working in a chemists and seeing the staged photo of herself, her husband and their young son in the photographic studio's window (which itself beautifully suggests the facade of 'perfect' relationships - perhaps the whole film could just be seen as a 'what if?' scenario about what the lives of people we might see in such posed photographs are really like!)
This links back to a moment in the husband's section where he visits a friend and his family in the suburbs and is shown playing with their crying young son while obliviously wandering towards a balcony in maybe a subconscious attempt to do a Michael Jackson! It is underplayed at that point by the parents who just take the child from him, but looking back on it from the perspective of the couple having lost their own child, with this slight suggestion that it might have been the husband's fault for the loss, lends both of their motivations more weight than they may otherwise have had.
There are also interesting links between the husband and lover too - the husband in his dealings with the prostitute seems extremely uncomfortable and maybe just trying to get back at his wife's infidelity by having some extra-marital relations of his own. However it all goes wrong with the realisation of the lack of a condom during the rather unsexy coupling resulting in a quick trip to the doctor's office for testing! His lack of interest in the act as anything more than a way of evening the balance contrasts with the struggling novelist's casual treatment of the women he is with (though as shown above he gets upset when he thinks they've been with someone else!) The novelist is perhaps the most unsympathetic character in the film - from stealing his neighbour's fruit to publicly dumping and slapping his girlfriend in the street after she catches him philandering, he seems to deserve some sort of comeuppance. However even he in a way has sympathetic moments - the argument with the waitress which turns into a brawl with the staff, which then turns into a brawl with his co-workers when they complain about his behaviour (and after they've been 'forgetting' to invite him to the meal, forgetting his name and treating him badly during the meal), creates that horrible feeling of an escalating situation in which everybody suddenly turns against the character, and every attempt to stand up for himself just brings more approbation down onto him, as if everyone has just been waiting for the opportunity to put the boot in to present itself. There's a self destructive bent, and a self loathing one which needs the hatred of others in order to justify it, as well as the sense of powerlessness the novelist feels in the face of the judgement of others - the early scene of asking whether a potential publisher has read his manuscript only to be told in an off-hand manner that it has not even been looked at yet can in a way be seen as the motivation for his later outbursts. This does not exactly justify his actions, the way he treats his girl is particularly callous (but like Marta in Winter Light she still, fatally, sticks by him), but they come from an understandable place - impotence in life expressed in an over active libido?
I also like that the film ends extremely ambiguously - the 'guilty' are both punished and left unpunished, the 'innocent' are both destroyed and perform some of the worst acts (forgive me if I'm wrong but I sort of inferred the scene between husband and wife when she returns home to be a sort of 'weclome home rape'?), and like life it is left to the viewer to pigeonhole the characters into different roles based on what we see and can infer about their characters. Though for the good of everyone it would perhaps be best to not try to pigeonhole any of the characters as being purely good or evil, but just as having vastly different ideas of what they want out of life, and different feelings of fulfilment with the lives they actually have.
The more I think about the film, the more I like it. For such a deceptively simple construction there are a lot of fascinating layers and interactions occurring beneath the surface to discover.