Starting with a theme will make it all veer to one point. We don’t appreciate films for their themes.
— Jingu (Lee Sun-kyun)
Jingu (Lee Sun-kyun) and his wife (Baek Jungrim) are looking for their car as Oki’s Movie (Ok-hui-ui yeonghwa) begins. It’s the sort of search any number of couples in the city might undertake, not panicked, not even frustrated, but still, not finding the car right away either. They know it must be nearby. As they walk, she wonders why he’s smoking a cigarette. “I thought you were quitting,” she says, then, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” She looks at him critically, then slowly turns away. “Forget it, she finishes, “Do whatever you want.” And with that, she’s striding away down the street as Jingu trots along behind her, his voiceover telling you what you can see anyway: “My wife isn’t the same these days.”
You might say that the start of Hong Sang-soo’s movie — actually the first of four short movies within the movie, and opens for a week’s run at Maysles Cinema on 16 April — sets up some familiar themes, like loss and disappointment, betrayal and desire, memory and forgetting. Jingu is a filmmaker, and so has an interest in such themes, but it’s not clear how aware he might be of his construction and participation in his own story. He’s also a teacher, whose instructions to students are at once cryptic, profound, and obvious. “If you don’t fix it, the narrative won’t support itself,” he tells Oki (Jung Yumi), “Your sincerity needs its own form, the form will take you to the truth. Telling it as it is wont’ get you there.”
Jingu’s self-image shapes such instructions, of course. He talks about truth and can’t imagine it, or maybe he believes he has access to it, because it’s his. He chides a young photographer in the park not to “shoot someone who’s sleeping” (that is, him, fretful and perhaps dozing on a bench), then goes on to use her camera to try to seduce (capture) her. This scene indicates the hypocrisy of the artist, if not what he makes. As it happens, Jingu’s self-image gets a brief boost when he believes he’s going to receive a prize for one of his films. Congratulated by colleagues and admired by students, Jingu spends a good chunk of Oki’s Movie feigning humility and anticipating veneration. The truth is that neither of these themes quite applies to Jingu; his self-delusions inform his art as well as his relationships.
The truth Jingu says he pursues — or encourages his students to pursue — remains elusive. When he arrives intoxicated at a screening of one of his films and begins to take questions, he’s confronted by a young woman who charges him with breaking her best friend’s heart, when he ended an affair with her. Jingu claims he can’t remember the young woman or the affair (“I’m married,” he says, as if this disproves the contention straight up), as the movie suggests a connection between recollection and intention, or even truth and fiction.
Jingu’s version of what’s happening to him is not quite like versions recounted by others, which appear in a couple of the other films in Oki’s Movie. Each of the four movies in Oki’s Movie is introduced by a set of credits on leaderish blue and its own title, as well as the anthemic “Pomp and Circumstance,” at once ostentatious and ridiculous. That the ambition might outstrip the art is one possibility. That the ambition might shape the art is another.
One of the movies is built around Jingu’s own professor, Song (Moon Sung-keun), who’s not entirely happy growing old, being admired, or teaching. When questioned by his students — “Is it okay to want an easy life it” — he answers in negatives. An easy life “doesn’t really exist,” he intones, and he can’t say what he “wants” because it changes day to day.
Song and Jingu’s stories, such as they are, find no easy answers in the fourth film, which is “made” and narrated by Oki. She describes it as a sort of anthropological project, as she means to set her affairs with a “younger man” (Jingu) and an “older man” (Song) next to one another to see similarities. The film shows her in similar circumstances, and in love, with each man — visiting a pavilion, walking a woodsy path, out in the snow — but neither scenario leads to understanding, or even much in the way of pleasure. That her final frame shows her face, distressed as she walks off screen, intimates the irresolution of her movie, the one shaped by the others.