Hong Sangsoo’s Tale of Cinema

The Daily — May 26, 2021
Hong Sangsoo’s Tale of Cinema (2005)

In 2005, Hong Sangsoo’s sixth feature, Tale of Cinema, became the second of a total of four of his films so far to premiere in competition at Cannes. Several months later, it screened at the New York Film Festival, and then returned to the States in 2012 for a one-off screening at Japan Society, but it’s never seen a proper theatrical release in the U.S. Now New York’s Metrograph is screening Tale of Cinema, albeit virtually, through Monday.

It’s a tale told in two distinct parts. In the first, Sang-won, a young student played by Lee Ki-woo, bumps into an ex-girlfriend, Young-shil (Uhm Ji-won), and after dinner and sex, they decide to kill themselves—together. Following a transition so smooth that it takes many viewers a moment or two to realize it’s happened, Dong-soo (Kim Sang-kyung), recently graduated from film school, walks out of the theater that’s just screened this story of suicidal lovers, a film that not only uncomfortably echoes a chapter in Dong-soo’s own life and stars an actress named Young-shil but has also been made by his mentor, Yi Hyongsu, an ailing director of some renown.

In her 2005 review for Reverse Shot, Kristi Mitsuda raised a series of questions. “Did we witness Yi Hyongsu’s empirical version of the movie or Dong-soo’s mental interpretation? Or did we, in fact, see it as Dong-soo would have directed it?” And further: “Did Hong cut away from the embedded piece at an arbitrary point? What does it mean that he chose to shoot both the ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ segments in near-identical styles, replete with conspicuous zooms and without any marked differences to distinguish his own film from that of Yi Hyongsu’s?”

For Slant’s Ed Gonzalez, also writing in 2005, Tale of Cinema “isn’t just some ordinary tale about art imitating life and vice versa; given the structure of the film and overlapping details, it’s easy and tempting to read it as such, except the film-within-a-film doesn’t provoke Dong-soo to imitate its story as much as it opens the floodgates of memory. Hong recognizes the power of cinema to connect us to our personal experiences, but in the way Dong-soo sadly projects his feelings for a long-ago flame onto Young-shil, he also acknowledges its deluding strength.”

In the New Yorker, Richard Brody places Tale of Cinema within the context of Hong’s busy career, and writes that his “ramped-up manipulations of time and continuity, fusions of reality and fantasy, and speculative dramatization of alternate worlds show a cinematized mind at work in real time. When a great filmmaker titles a movie Tale of Cinema, it’s a red flag to herald matters of great personal implication. With its immediate drama and its far-reaching vision of untapped possibilities, this movie fulfills that promise.”

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