As a part of the London Korean Film Festival (LKFF)‘s celebration of 100 years of Korean Cinema, LKFF revisits Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo with their screening of his 1996 feature debut, “The Day a Pig Fell into the Well.” “Pig” had skyrocketed Hong to fame; he received the “Best New Director” at the Blue Dragon Film Award, as well as recognition at Rotterdam and Vancouver. Now, upon re-watching “Pig” in its contemporary context, Hong’s themes of love and loss ring clear – and perhaps reflect that romantic relations in the ’90s is, perhaps, not so different from those of today’s.
Much like its titular inspiration, “Pig” entangles four different lives under the thin veneer of supposed romance and rampant sexual desire. Hyo-seop (Kim Eui-sung) is a second-rate novelist who barely scrapes by with his meager earnings. In between drunken escapades and flirtatious dates with the young movie concessionist Min-jae (Cho Eun-sook), he chases married woman Bo-kyung (Lee Eung-kyeong) — of whom he swears he loves to the ends of the earth. Bo-kyung, however, must coyly navigate her situation, discreetly avoiding neat-freak husband Dong-woo (Park Jin-sung) to engage in her affair with Hyo-seop. Dong-woo consequently feels insecure — and attempts to overcome his germophobia on a business trip with a prostitute. At the other end of things, hopeless romantic Min-jae fantasizes about her relationship with Hyo-seop despite the unwanted advances of unrequited partner Min-soo (Son Min-seok), ultimately leading to fatal consequence.
Peppered with sex scenes galore, Hong’s vision of courtship grows more and more disillusioned with each physically intimate moment. Indeed, it is almost disturbing to view the film in our current #MeToo political moment. For each heterosexual interaction, male partners selfishly devour their incredibly detached female partners; not even open denial can stand up to sexual harassment, face-slapping, and even rape. Even Bo-kyung’s and Hyo-seop’s own relationship seems transactional; Bo-kyung looks to the window, timing their own relationship to the minute they must leave their rented hotel room. And unsurprisingly, the women are simultaneously critiqued for their prudishness and impurity, as their bodies are recycled as vessels for male release.
Through each flirtatious effort, Hong strictly isolates and fragments his characters through windows and mirrors. Patches of sunlight shine through luminescent windows, illuminating the faces of Hong’s characters. Conversations – often captured in mirrors rather than in reverse shots – seldom see locked eyes in formal tête-à-tête. Hong’s elegant cinematography ponders over its prevailing emptiness, reminding the viewer of not just beauty but of its overwhelming lack of passion. Hong’s characters suffocate in the absence of affection, trapped within the confines of their indoor environs. Like birds in a cage, his actors remain encased: admired on-screen, but unable to escape their complex social situation.
Ok Kil-sung’s sound design only heightens the pervading sense of anxiety when each character temporarily disassociates. In each dedicated cameo, the characters undergo the same cathartic moment in which they grow distinctly self-aware of the ludicrous attempt at romance. In each occasion, the protagonist must make their decision to the beat of the same atonal violin, violently distracted until they make the next move. Ok’s musical see-saw swings between ear-grating strings to palatable pop music, reflecting the aching atonality of mood changes.
LKFF’s poignant choice to screen Hong Sang-soo’s latest work “Grass” (2018) back-to-back made room for a fun comparison between the past and the present. “Grass” is a one-hour long feature of a girl’s snark observations of coffee shop conversation. Hong’s 2018 film similarly delivers a tongue-in-cheek critique of male imprudence, especially in heterosexual relations. However, just as they are in “Pig,” the women are still complicit; any show of independence and agency subsides to locked arms with male lovers. While Hong maintains his critique of patriarchal power structures as we know it, he also falls into the fallacy of his own kind by glorifying female complicity in the problematic power dynamics of his heterosexual relationships.
Even over twenty years since its original release, “Pig” resonates. Even in a metropolis teeming with opportunity, each individual is still alienated from one another in the grand scheme of passion. Gender dynamics have changed little over the years, where women still have little room to say “no” without fear of consequence. In this emotionally-charged drama of chivalrous declaration, power imbalance, and not much backbone, Hong’s grand Shakespearean tragedy makes one thing clear: there is no such thing as real love. The only constant is – and always will be – loneliness.