Director Hong Sangsoo is South Korea’s answer to the accusation that all its movies are good for is a hammer-claw to the face. Take a weekend and familiarize yourself with the best of recent South Korean cinema, and the first thing you’ll have to learn is how to live with close-ups of the effects that blunt weapons have on mouths full of teeth, the backs of skulls, achilles tendons, and other tender body parts. You might start strong with an evil masterpiece like Oldboy, pace yourself admirably with bloody genre fare like The Chaser, Thirst, and Mother, and round the home stretch with the profoundly disturbing I Saw the Devil. Then, if you’re still able to think, you’ll do well to finish out your marathon with a few soothing films by Hong Sangsoo — say, Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors and The Woman on the Beach. Exhausted from all of the physical brutality of knife wounds and gore, it might be nice to settle into Hong’s spare, simple stories about romantic pettiness and quiet emotional warfare.
Hong is the poet of the kind of cinema that deals with artistic men acting like grown-up babies. He prefers filmmakers (sometimes painters) as his subjects, assigns them a lead role at the petulant apex of a romantic triangle, and then spends 90 or so minutes watching them squirm. Where he usually focuses on the romantic assholery of just one famous film director (a surrogate for himself, one would assume), Hong has upped the stakes with Oki’s Movie by throwing three filmmakers into his seething mix. The first is an older, respected veteran director named Song (Moon Sung-keun); the second is a young director named Jingu (Lee Sun Gyun) who is just gaining recognition; and the third, the titular Oki (Yu-mi Jeong), is a talented novice, barely beginning to come into her own making movies. Song and Jingu each thrive on their renown as directors; you get the impression that if either lost some portion of their accolades, their egos would implode in a conflagration of frustrated maleness and awkward sexual advances. Both are also in love with Oki, each with his own method of spurious seduction. Song plays the settled sage, seemingly confident in himself and his powers. Jingu, younger and less stable, goes the opposite route of impassioned speeches and grand, foolish gestures.
Oki herself is far from convinced that either filmmaker is what they seem, yet she allows herself to be wooed and finds the time to look for the best in each of her peculiar suitors. What she finds, you’ll have to watch closely to catch: Hong’s movies are small masterpieces of unstated intention and frustrated actions. In his dry, impeccable little scenes, so little happens on screen because everything is going on in the characters’ heads that keeping up with the mental games that everyone’s playing may throw you into a panic. The totality of what is left unsaid in Hong’s movies easily fills the vacuum left by their lack of dramatic action.
Hong divides Oki’s Movie into four sections, each with its own set of identical opening credits, accompanied by a waltzing score. There are the smallest hints that each section is a different film made by Oki, Song, or Jingu; though each of the four pieces feeds into the next, it’s nevertheless possible that we’re watching new versions of romantic relationships that all three of them have been repeating for years. Hong sees very little difference between filmmaking and life. Indeed, his lovely, devastating films circle endlessly around his own fascination with the way artistic success is twisted up with the desire to possess young women, only to then make art from them. He is the South Korean Eric Rohmer — a master at uncovering the unspoken comedy of love and the necessary solipsism of art — and given Rohmer’s recent death, it’s a good thing the prolific Hong is here to keep that mastery alive.