Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000)

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-soo, 2000)
Korean Title: Oh! Soo-jung

I remember my first time, my metaphorical devirginization, into Hong Sang-soo's cinema. It was nowhere near the portrayed deflowering in this feature, wherein Soo-jung (Lee Eun-ju) uncomfortably lies in bed and is assisted into the perfect position by her boyfriend Young-soo (Mun Seong-kun). She cries and pleads to her boyfriend that he be gentle; and when the first thrust is done, pain, pleasure and resolution coincides to make her face slightly smiling, slightly grimacing, and slightly tearful. It was nowhere near that dramatic when I saw my first Hong film, Woman is the Future of Man (2004). My deflowering was uneventful, droll, and quite fittingly numb; the second, third and fourth times were much more pleasurable, wherein the little details, the intelligent framings and editing, the cerebral form, the voluntary lack of music to incorporate the depth of the background noise heighten the experience to near climactic satisfaction.

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors is Hong's third feature film. It is his only film in black and white --- he accuses color of giving "viewers more than they need." It is also very formal --- call cards of questionable intentions separate episodes; which are further separated by numbers. It's a cognitive illusion that Hong guides you in a step-by-step like manner; the film is structured like a masterplan, opening with a curious dilemma of the sexually persistent guy being stood up by his girlfriend inside a hotel room. Hong then methodically dissects the problem by narratively detailing the history of their relationship; he then traces the missteps and possible errors in mnemonic assessment or emotional understanding, before indulging us with the surprising yet inevitable outcome of devirginization. The process is dehumanizing yet quite understandable in this queer scenario.

The plot is concentrated on that single act: to have Soo-jung devirginized. It's been said that virginity is a state of mind; Soo-jung's elusive treasure is not innocence or purity (those virtues, we know, are not part of her mental picture), but physiological virginity. It's that knowledge that brought a twinkle in Young-soo's eyes and would lead him to endlessly torture himself to just witness and experience such breaking. It is also Hong's biggest joke, amidst the numerous subtle observational ticklers (Young-soo, in the beginning, examines every corner of his hotel room for hidden cameras; perpetually interrupted acts of lovemaking). Hong pushes us to take part in believing the seriousness of the act, which, if placed in a rational perspective, is a mere anatomical illusion of womanhood, and nothing more. The extent and gravity society and its participating characters, including the ever-cerebral Hong, attributes the first time provides for the hugest chuckle of them all.

And it's all the same for Hong. He accomplishes the feat with tender precision. Each frame, each sequence, each scene is composed lovingly that it's easy to get lost in the black and white timeless feel of modern Korea where street lamps and headlights glare with muted and romantic intensity. The exchanges of dialogue, the misplaced and dubious scenes that somewhat came out of nowhere (the sideplot involving Soo-jung's brother leaves a dry taste in one's cinephiliac palette), the confusing or complicated temporal or imaginary stretches in narrative structure --- all these merely point out the vaporous style of Hong's cinema, wherein characters move, talk, and feel like real men and women do, although they are carefully observed through an obtrusive filmic magnifying glass.

Beautiful, complex, arrestingly humorous, and numbing in its anti-romanticism, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors also criticizes the Korean male as servants of a mutated mixture of their heart and gonads. They easily swoon under the temptations of the pheromones of an easy, unvirtuous yet virginal female; the swooning lets them forget about friendships, professionalism, family, and respect. In the end, like that abruptly stopped cable car Soo-jung rides to finally let go of that fool's gold she jealously guards with her hands and panties, they are left hanging with the normalcy of a relationship that is not colored by that fetishistic attraction with hymen. The somewhat sweet ending where the two lovers embrace inside a well-lit hotel room will inevitably betrayed when both are left hanging, not with tight loving hugs and kisses, but with the cries and whimpers of family life.

This post is my contribution to Hell on Frisco Bay's Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors The Blog-A-Thon.

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