The employment of a narrative of diptychs, title cards, and the artistic decision to shoot in monocolor alone would have vaulted Sang-soo Hong’s ode to cinema halfway to realization without factoring in his recurrent and self-referential character stocks. Screenwriters and filmmakers. Such archetypes while not constants in his work still are reliable regulars in an oeuvre one would be wrong to classify as entirely meta. The film in a nutshell is the wooing of a virgin with entire duration a portrayal of the seductive process to get her to have sex. Skimming my library for other Sang-soo Hong titles promises more of the same, a collection sadly missing his debut. I have only seen The Power of Kangwon Province prior to today’s film and so far Hong’s main focus remains affixed on the deceits of courtship in the modern age, an area he broaches with delicate nuance if the acting and delivery are a matter of acquired taste so far.
Blame it on animated theatrics, individual interpretation or intended effect, it may well be that Koreans and other Asians for that matter all share loud intonations, obnoxious even, if one were nursing a hangover. But it is rather the cinematic language at heart and a throwback to Ophuls and Kiarostami in particular which captivate. Jae-hoon in the well to do heartthrob role is equally comical in the awkward sense while his long-lost friend, if that is to be believed, Young-soo is in way over his head as a television producer. Their eventual love interest, Soo-jung, a writer on the production, is timid in one timeline but less coy in the other but is the target of amorous overtures all the same. These advances border on harassment to our Western sensibilities, and that’s putting it mildly considering a rape attempt will follow, but Sang-soo Hong’s ironic treatment is so against the grain our shock is muted by his tone and comedic stylings.
In my struggle to deduce reality from delusion, the two prominent title cards announcing each narrative shed a faint light on the two clashing sides, but only just. The truth is altered and Soo-jung for example exaggerates her sexual experiences to her married boss after a kiss and the second half of the story begins with her covetous stare from the office window at her boss playing with his girls. But in taking in coincidence versus the intentional as the cosmic deities presiding over fate regulating our paths, we’re taken on the same kind of ride the two lovers subject one another to. According to the suitor’s point of view, it is a chance encounter when Young-soo brings along Soo-jung to his gallery even if they’re there to solicit financing for their film. There’s an ingenuity in the following scene when after Jae-hoon insists the three have lunch Young-soo tiptoes around the purpose of their visit with a feigned interest in catching up, using the veil of salarayman small talk. I know it’s a Japanese credo but there are localized variations of it in other places supposedly. More scenes will involve dining out with increasing levels of inebriation it is not a surprise when Soo-jung suggests she be Jae-hoon’s girlfriend only when they’re drinking after he professes his feelings.
But Sang-soo Hong is not interested in positioning either character as the unreliable narrator, nor is his film intended to serve in that capacity. A humorous intermission involving Soo-jung in a suspended cable car would have seemed random but because we’d seen her contemplate Jae-hoon’s proposal all along and the baby diaper she helps change with a passenger in the next seat it is in mockery of the central tension when the power is back on to close out the interlude. Coitus interruptus is the suggestion. This brings us full circle to a degree, much like The Power of Kangwon Province did at its midway point. Her segment next begins and—titled (surprise) Perhaps Intention—in it almost everything is subverted to a tee in a scene for scene makeover. A fork becomes a spoon. The bully [director] is now the chump. And her mannerisms thoroughly supplant the stereotypical image of the docile, demure and subservient woman but Jae-hoon would stay the same juvenile and entitled rich kid in both acts.
Perhaps Virgin is a subtle critique of masculinity all along that is dressed up as a comedy and a satirical exposé of the balance of power in human relationships. It is but one observation however. He manages to slip in social commentary on rape and consent for example when Young-soo almost has sex with Soo-jung against her wish. But the shock and predictability of that development soon subsides into comedy because both acknowledge the drunken mistake and make up next. And finally when when Soo-jung meets Jae-hoon at their rendezvous point he makes the tried and tested mistake of calling her by another’s name while in throes of passion and all hell breaks loose. Worse than Young-soo’s excuse is Jae-hoon’s rationalization of his slip of the tongue after his petulant protestations at why she wouldn’t have sex with him sooner. The gall on some men!