South Korean cinema's radically banal Hong Sang-soo

South Korean director Hong Sang-soo

Terrifying techno thrillers or grisly horror flicks are the more familiar face of South Korean cinema today, but one of its star directors, Hong Sang-soo, in the French capital this week, looks instead at daily banalities and their cruel and comical details.

"Life is too complicated to be interpreted in an ideological way," he told AFP ahead of his master-class at Paris' Cinémathèque, which is holding a retrospective of his work this month and screening his tenth feature, the Cannes-winning "Ha Ha Ha".

"Most conclusions are lies," he said, explaining the absence of political talk or context in his films, often set in or around Seoul and focused on fraught emotional relationships between thirty-something writers, artists, businessmen and teachers.

"It is always a tiny but concrete thing from reality that shakes my convictions, and it is precisely this discovery in itself that interests and stimulates me the most."

For Hong Sang-soo, 50, truth is in the details, "preconceived ideas feel like an oppression."

In 2005 the Cinémathèque -- the main hub of film culture in Paris -- devoted a season to South Korean cinema, touting it as "one of the most dynamic in the world. Everyone is talking about it. No cinema attracts as much attention."

The surge started in the nineties when South Korea also created an international film festival in Pusan, a clear sign that the national industry had serious ambitions to become a major rival to Hollywood.

Since then hits have followed one after the other, not only at screens in Asia but also in Europe and North America, with the likes of Bong Joon-hoo's "The Host", Im Sang-soo's "The Housemaid" and another Cannes success from 2010, Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry".

International critics tend to read into South Korean films a symbolism related to the country's recent history: Japanese occupation, partition, the 1950-53 civil war with North Korea.

Yet Hong Sang-soo rarely brings these elements into his movies, and dismisses attempts to see Pyongyang as weighing heavily on his psyche or that of his characters.

Yes, people talk about North Korea "but they have become blase," he says.

-- 'Not imprisoned in a category' --


He avoids generalisations, insisting "every human being is different and I have no idea what an archetype of the average South Korean is".

"The important thing for me is to discover the small things in daily life. This motivates me the most, it is what gives me the courage to live."

Hong Sang-soo was born in Seoul in 1960 and spent eight years studying film in California before returning home to shoot his first feature, "The Day a Pig Fell into the Well" in 1996.

He does not think of himself as part of a broader movement, which critics call the South Korean New Wave. "I do not see myself as being imprisoned in a single category," he says.

The diversity of work coming from South Korea is indeed striking, from stylised horror, black comedy, sexual psycho-thrillers, and Hong Sang-soo's own radically banal domestic sagas.

One consistent factor in his working method is the lack of one: he has no time for rules, formats or predictable narratives. And while he injects drama in his films -- outbursts of anger, emotionally-charged sex scenes, shocking cruelty between lovers -- it is never melodrama.

The director also avoids cliches. He never, for example, shows the landmark sights of Seoul nor tries to beautify his country's landscape or present it as exotic.

When his characters walk to a temple, we never see them arrive. A stunning cathedral is partly cut out of the frame when a couple meet for the first time, the camera focusing instead on a bush of violet, bee-infested chrysanthemums.

Freewheeling to the core, he even finds a notebook restrictive so carries loose file cards to jot down his ideas. A notebook must stay together "whereas with these cards I can just throw one away," he says.

Similarly, he is known for finishing a day's script only half an hour before the cameras start to roll, and constantly changes the trajectory of his characters depending on the personality of the actor playing the role.

He -- like many in South Korea's efflorescent film-making generation -- does not offer comfortable portraits of the nation but reveals unexpected truths about human relationships today.

"It's the small details that keep me fresh!" he says.