No animals are harmed (or, as memory serves, even appear) in Hong Sang-soo’s 1996 debut feature, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well; and while an innocent young woman is eventually disrobed by her buffoonish lovers in Hong’s Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), it occurs sufficiently late in the film’s running time to disappoint anyone lured in by the title’s salacious promise. What you will find instead in each of Hong’s nine feature films are the writer-director’s knowing, soju-scented musings on the awkward (and often humiliating) courtship rituals between emotionally immature men and the women who don’t so much love as tolerate them. Even before its recent return from the brink of death, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s film program was set to go forth with this ambitious, nearly complete Hong retrospective — the first of its kind in L.A. The South Korean writer-director’s deeply personal, wonderfully idiosyncratic films have scarcely been seen outside of a couple of one-off events at USC and UCLA.
The first of Hong’s films to screen in competition at Cannes, Woman Is the Future of Man (2004), takes its title from a Louis Aragon poem and its plot from a familiar Hong template: Two men, both intellectuals, chase after a phantom femme, whose wiles are rivaled only by her inscrutability. It begins on a sunlit, snow-covered Seoul afternoon, as a filmmaker named Heon-jun (Kim Tae-woo) pays a visit to an old friend, university professor Mun-ho (Yu Ji-tae). The two were classmates years before, but then Heon-jun left to seek (and not find) his fortune in America — much like Hong himself. And as they reminisce about bygone days, making hilariously clumsy passes at the waitress in a Chinese restaurant, the men turn their minds to a woman they both once knew, slept with, and maybe (but likely not) loved. When day gives way to night, in search of lost time and new beginnings, they travel together to the bar in Pusan, where the woman, Seon-hwa (Seong Hyeon-ah), now works as a hostess.
Another chance meeting, between a man and a woman who were once almost lovers, is the starting point for Hong’s second Cannes competitor, Tale of Cinema(2005), which seems like business as usual until, midway through, Hong takes a delightfully abrupt detour into meta territory. Probably Hong’s most accessible work, Woman on the Beach (2006) charts the fortunes of a Hong-like film director, his flunky assistant, the beautiful woman (the extraordinary Ko Hyeon-Gang) who comes between them, and a second woman (Song Seon-Mi), who resembles the first in a way that proves fatally tempting; its pièce de résistance is an indescribable scene in which the Hong surrogate wriggles out of an argument by making a hand-drawn diagram of his own creative process.
For his brainy, wordy exchanges on love and lust, and for the uncluttered elegance of his camera style, Hong has earned comparisons to French director Eric Rohmer. But Hong’s languid insights into the age-old battle of the sexes are entirely his own. That the films can sometimes seem indistinguishable from one another is, in Hong’s case, more a virtue than a flaw, as he continues to write new chapters in one mammoth, cumulative work about the unbearable lightness of being ... himself. LACMA’s series also includes the Los Angeles premieres of two Hong films: the direct-from-Cannes Like You Know it All, in which another Hong alter ego makes a fool out of himself while serving as a film-festival juror; and Night and Day(2008), a formally ambitious ménage-à-quatre set in Paris’ Korean expat community. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater; through Sat., September 19, lacma.org/film.)