“Let's just read. In such a rotten world only books will save us.”
This line of dialogue, which is spoken early in Oki’s Movie and follows shortly after the statement “Film as an art is dead,” might lower audience expectations if it weren’t delivered with such devastating irony. With its goofy directness it thoroughly disarms, and so has the opposite effect: we feel drawn to a film that pokes fun not only at filmmaking but at all our personal and cultural aspirations for the medium. Let’s start by acknowledging that “the movies” are a sham, writer-director Hong Sang-soo seems to be saying – only then can we hope to redeem them, and ourselves, in even the smallest way.
In this sense, Hong continues to play with the metafilmic approach he’s been using for a while; just check out 2005’s Tale of Cinema, which, like this 2010 film that’s only now getting a U.S. release, announces its cinema-centrism in its very title. Oki’s Movie is structured as a kind of theme-and-variations piece via four mini-movies, each of which is drolly introduced with a modest credit sequence rendered grandiose by the addition of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” At the center of it all is Lee Seon-gyoon, who plays both a burnt-out yet arrogant director and, later, the same character as a lovelorn student filmmaker. Similarly, Moon Seong-geun plays a trusted mentor, a shady professor, and a romantic rival who actually turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic. As Oki, the engaging Jeong Yu-mi seems to get less screen time than the two men in her life yet that fits her slightly enigmatic status. So although the movie that she’s made is presented only in the final 16 minutes, it’s a quiet tour de force that brings together all that came before.
With its shifting perspectives and gently fractured narrative, Oki’s Movie might give the impression of being just another overly cerebral arthouse exercise. But such an assessment would be off the mark for one simple reason: it’s consistently, jaw-droppingly hilarious. No, the humor isn’t broad, and in fact it’s so deadpan that it may prompt a double-take or two – wait, was that supposed to be funny? While in some of Hong’s other films there’s more ambiguity as to his seriousness at any given moment, Oki’s Movie never lets up in its satire of academia, indie filmmaking, romance, and the manners associated with all three. In short, if audiences can’t tell that the film is funny, and fully intends to be, then they probably won’t know what to make of it. Sure, some of the laughs derive from the “humor of the uncomfortable” school, and there’s an Oscar Wilde-like gravity lurking behind the wit. Hong not only winks at us, but winks at us regarding his winks. Finally, although lead Lee Seon-gyoon has been in some comedies, it might not be obvious at first that here he’s playing perfectly against his screen persona as a handsome-and-capable leading man (Paju had been released just the previous year, in 2009) by, basically, portraying an intellectual jackass.
Yet for an intellectual jackass he says some pretty insightful things – insightful as to Hong’s own artistic credo, that is. For example, here’s Lee’s character holding forth at a typical Q&A with a public audience in a screening room:
"My film is similar to the process of meeting people. You meet someone and get an impression, and make a judgment with that. But tomorrow you might discover different things. I hope my film can be similar in complexity to a living thing."
He continues by pointing out how filmmakers have incorrectly been taught to value theme above all else. "Starting with a theme will make it all veer to one point," he explains, and suddenly we grasp part of Hong’s strategy in this and in his other films.
The problem is, Oki’s Movie definitely does have a theme, albeit one that surfaces gradually and which Hong almost always presents with a light touch. It concerns the way that passion, for better or worse, can break through all that is false about modern life: alienation, regimentation, even our own pretenses. But to realize that passion on a consistent basis – either in terms of romance or filmmaking (which is a stand-in for art and creativity generally) – some form of power seems to be required, whether it’s money, professional credentials, or personal reputation. And that’s where the trouble starts, as a disproportionate concern for such things can also come to undermine our ability to feel passion with any authenticity.
In conclusion, I don’t want to sound too over-the-top but I’m very grateful that someone like Hong Sang-soo is in his creative prime these days, and that cinephiles have a chance to catch his work on the big screen even if it’s somewhat belatedly. In fact, if you’re lucky enough to live in or near New York, I’d advise seeing Oki and the equally wonderful The Day He Arrives in as close to a back-to-back fashion as you can. If you do, afterwards you’ll likely find yourself walking about in a kind of waking dream – disoriented but strangely elated at the same time.
Oki's Movie will be having a special one week in engagement in New York at the Maysles Theatre from 04/16-04/22. It will presented as part of the bi-monthly series, 'Documentary in Bloom: New Films Presented by Livia Bloom.'
Peter Gutiérrez, a U.S. correspondent for MKC, writes for Twitch and blogs on pop culture for School Library Journal.
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