Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: The Power of Kangwon Province

The Power of Kangwon Province (1998, Hong Song-soo)

Writer director Sang–soo Hong’s sophomore effort, The Power of Kangwon Province, offers two stories for the price of one. Both are connected in some ways however. This might not seem like the most clever device known to movie buffs like us, but as is often argued, even though all stories have been told already, the magic and merit of the film is in how the filmmaker presents it.

The story is for the most part neatly split into two halves, each one earning more or less the same running time with the link between the two being allocated the final few scenes of the movie. The first half focuses on a brief and passionate affair between Ji-sook (Yun-hong Oh), a young student currently on vacation and an older (although not terribly so), married policeman (Yoosuk Kim). Ji-sook is resting and exploring the natural sights and sounds in Kangwon, a province in the northern part of Korea. Together with two other female friends, they set about walking the trails in the forest and exploring and the hills and mountains. Upon marching back to their hotel one afternoon, they come across the policeman I mentioned earlier. Off duty, he is friendly and drives them back to the hotel. Later that night they meet again at a restaurant and share a few drinks. Ji-sook’s friends leave somewhere, leaving a very drunk Ji-sook and the horny cop alone. You can guess the rest.

The second half begins with two good friends, a professor and an aspiring professor, the latter who we learn is married, sitting at a restaurant. The aspiring professor explains to his friend that he has just cut the ties to an emotionally deep relationship he had with a much younger girl. This girl left a remarkable impression on him, and he confesses to have truly loved her at one point. His career status is on the rocks and so he decides to take a trip with his professor friend to, where else, Kangwon province. Once there, the two buddies eat, drink, try to escort a woman whom they suspect at first to be single (their assumption is eventually trumped) and hire some professional hookers to get jiggy with it for one night in their hotel room. They return home and the aspiring professor…I’ll stop here.

I can’t really give any more information than that, otherwise I would be spoiling the joy of discovering this world director Song-soo Hong has in store for the curious viewer. There are hints (one of which I have actually supplied) sprinkled throughout the film that indicate how two groups of people, as well as another separate incident, are all interconnected somehow. That is in fact part of Hong’s skill on display. His ability to show a very ordinary looking film but invest it with the funny, odd and sad coincidences that can affect anyone of us in life. We often walk right by people whom we may know, whom we perhaps knew or whom we even may not know until a later date in time. You might strike a conversation with someone you have never met in your life and may very well never see again, but those few moments spent with that individual will play a vital role for you or for someone you can help tomorrow, next week or next month. Of course, we don’t know any of that as it takes place, nor do the characters starring in this movie. Nothing overly dramatic, apocalyptic or condescending occurs in the film, this isn’t Crash, but what Hong does so well is weave these tales into the film. They don’t sound like they fit, the viewer may not see why they fit at first, but by the end, it is plainly obvious that they do fit and why.

I read somewhere, and even though it wasn’t from a film scholar or anyone of the same ilk I still found it intriguing, that what Hong does in this film is akin to what Kieslowski is known for. This perfection of weaving tales together that, while they can be looked upon as distinct if need be, they are in reality intertwined with one another, be it in the narrative or merely on an emotional level, Power of Kangwon Province juggling the two nicely with perhaps a bit more emphasis on the latter. For that reason I think that argument makes a lot of sense. Director Hong doesn’t rush anything either, much like Kieslowski. He wants the viewer to see and witness the details of their behaviour, what they think, what they do, what their reactions are to certain things. The craft is in the detail and the calm but very assured filmmaking. Shots will rarely demonstrate any kind of dynamic movement or flair. Hong obviously knows where he wants his camera to rest to capture the essence of each individual scene and lets it sit there. If I were to be bold for a moment and attempt a comparison of my own, I think the style is quite in tune with what Edward Yang does. The shot doesn’t need to move around, it can rest in one spot and capture all that is necessary to convey either the narrative or emotion or the physical beauty of a locale.

Where Hong doesn’t create like Kieslowki is in the stylistic makeup of his shots. Blue, White, Red, The Double Life of Véronique, all these films are jam packed with unbelievably rich texture in terms of colour. His films are like moving paintings. Hong on the other hand, at least in the case The Power of Kangwon Province, makes absolutely no obvious attempt at providing a scene with an artificial tint. Artificiality is not the name of the game with this film. Everything looks very naturalistic. Other than I imagine some necessary lighting and makeup choices, this looks like the real world. That makes perfect sense because I was under the impression that director Hong wanted to capture just that. Lives, stories, emotions and desires are intertwined in funny ways in the real world anyways. There was never a moment during which I felt someone was over acting, or acting just for the sake of it, to convey something that wasn’t necessary. Hong gets the most out of the people he hired for the job without ever resorting to cheap tricks. In fact you can forgive me if this comes off as silly or simply incorrect, but I’m detecting a bit of neo-neo-realism here. Or just realism, I don’t know.

Understandably, the film is a bit slow. I could think of a few scenes that could have been cut out. It’s one thing to put a realistic story on film, it’s another to indulge in showing things that may not really be all that necessary to begin with. I’m sure the film would have been fine with 10 minutes or so less. Nonetheless, I can’t complain too much since I was never dying of boredom. I liked the film quite a bit and there were moments that made me smile and think. Just that a few shots make me think ‘I get it, let’s move along now.’

Overall, The Power of Kangwon Province was quite a revelation for me given that I never had the privilege of watching a Hong film. I look forward to seeing more.

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