starring Ha Seong-guk, Kim Seung-yun, Shin Seokho
written and directed by Hong Sang-soo
by Walter Chaw I've been thinking a lot about my dad lately, It's the time of year when he died, and though I'm terrible with dates, my body seems to remember. I usually think my moods must have something to do with autumn and the change in the weather--but I love the autumn, the smell of rotten leaves, the halo around the moon, the chill. And then I remember. Korean master Hong Sang-soo reminds me of my dad, too. It's how he's so irritatingly self-assured, I think. So mulishly iconoclastic. My dad never really listened to anything anyone else told him. Sometimes that worked out for him; often it didn't. But the path of his life was defiantly his. My dad was learned, extraordinarily well-read in books written in languages I can't read, and tortured. He's been gone twenty years this year. Is it the "china" anniversary for death, as it is for marriage? Are the traditions the same, or do we fail to memorialize loss in the same way? My dad's death is almost old enough to drink. When I was much younger, I would ask him big questions--life, the universe, everything--and he would answer with quotations and philosophies: aphorisms, fables, poems. I don't remember anything about them except that they made me feel frustrated, mocked a little, and left to worry my thoughts alone like a cat with a tail of yarn. And now he's gone.
Hong Sang-soo's latest provocation is In Water. That I even see it as such says more about me than it does about the film. I'm irritated, because except for the first scene--in which we're introduced to a young director (Shin Seokho) and his two friends/cast/crew, Ha Seong-guk and Kim Seung-yun, sharing a pizza in a small, rented flat they're sharing on Jeju Island--the entire film is intentionally out of focus. Hong has said the decision to do so came to him on a whim before shooting started. He liked how it looked and left it that way, and the fallout is for the audience to untangle. I can do that. It's one of the things you learn to do in academia, spinning meaning out of what seems like air and accident. So long as you string your skylarks to anchors in the text, all's fair in the dialectical game. I can say that the lack of focus in In Water is expressionism or existentialism--a play on the optical tricks implied by the title or perhaps the ephemeral nature of our appearance across the long and flowing arc of time. I can say that its focus is just "slightly" off and therefore dreamlike: soft, hallucinogenic like a memory. Or I can say that so much of our energy is spent on trying to bring it into focus that it becomes Hong's metatextual scolding of critics who would exhaust themselves trying to understand when they should invest that time in just enjoying the ride. I can do this either way. But I'm not interested in why he did it. I think he did it because he doesn't have any answers as to why a convention is a convention, and that his body of work tells the same story of a certain rapture of the deep that paralyzes philosophers now and again. At a certain point, no questions have answers, because no objective foundational truth can ever be established.
In Water, aside from being out of focus, has something to say about how the creative process is mostly about existing in the moment and staying in tune with elements that others might overlook. After scouting out "pretty" locations in their village and then on a bluff overlooking the ocean, the director has a conversation with a woman (Kim Min-hee, probably) picking up litter. "Do you do this every day?" he asks. "No, once or twice a week," she says. Later, he recreates this scene with his actor friend and explains its profundity in contrast to the tourists up on the bluff, oblivious to the toil happening to make their impression of the overlook pristine. Maybe the film's blurriness is meant to evoke how I can't really remember what my dad looks like anymore, or what his laugh sounded like. I never thought I'd forget, but I have. Maybe it's a question you ask someone who is dead, and although they answer across whatever gulf you imagine is there now in your capacity to materialize a concept, the wind snatches it away before you can hear it. The closing shot of In Water is also the last shot of the film-within-a-film: the star walks into the ocean to first become an even more illegible black smear against a gray smear, then vanish. Does he kill himself, or does he only pretend to kill himself? Is one movie more real than the other? Does it matter how we die when we all die anyway? And what is the ripple we leave when we go? I can't see very well anymore. I can't see.