Monday, May 07, 2007

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002)

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002)
Korean Title: Saenghwalui balgyeon

The titles of Hong Sang-soo films are by themselves exquisite works of art. Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) is a bastardization of the title of Marcel Duchamp's artwork; Duchamp's art itself turning into a sort of formal instruction for Hong's narrative experimentations. It is actually quite unfortunate that Hong's fourth film, its international title is On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, is abridged merely for commercial and practical convenience without recognizing the implications of the abridgment.

More popularly referred to as merely Turning Gate (the title of the film in its American DVD release), the film is conveniently straightforward but like Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, it can be logically divided into two distinct parts. The first part involves the typical Hong man-child Gyung-soo (Kim Sang-kyung), an actor whose last film was a commercial flop, who sojourns to a remote tourist town to visit his childhood friend. While vacationing, he is introduced to dancer Myung-sook (Ye Ji-won) who becomes romantically attached to him. The second part of the film concerns Gyung-soo's unexpected detour on his way back to Seoul. He meets Seon-young (Sang Mi Chu) on the train, follows her to her home, and becomes romantically and inconveniently linked to her, despite the knowledge that she is already married.

While touring an ancient Buddhist temple, Gyung-soo is told of the tale of the turning gate --- about a peasant who falls in love with a princess but is killed by the princess' father; upon reincarnation, the peasant turns into a snake who traps the princess. The princess thus enters the buddhist temple's turning gate asking the snake to wait for her. After several hours, the snake becomes impatient and tries to enter the gate but is prevented by rain, and thunder; thus, convincing him to just turn back and walk away.

The convenient interpretation to the film is that it is a modern retelling of the ancient Korean fable; that Hong merely reconstructs the fable turning the peasant man into Gyung-soo, the princess as the married Seon-young and the supervening events as direct allegories to the ancient tale. However, I do not see it as simply as that and Hong is an artist more enamored by the psychological implications of the past and memories than by simplistic re-introductions of Korean culture into modern life.

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate concerns itself with the past and with that human ability to transport the past into the present --- through memories. Examine the first scene. Gyung-soo gets a call from a childhood friend, and a minute or two is spent in order for him to recall and place the voice with his reconstruction of the past. When his present state no longer suits his life (as when he wasn't cast as a player in a director's subsequent film), his escape mechanism is to go back to the past --- by visiting that childhood friend and as a side-effect, see the ancient places and hear the old tales. His relationship with Myung-sook turned sour and again, he seeks an escape; much further into the past.

Seon-young is at first a mere afterthought, a deviation from a relationship that within a few days rose and failed. Then, she gets re-introduced as an object of his past --- and Gyung-soo again undergoes the procedure of remembering her. Seon-young then becomes that object of Gyung-soo's past that he can never achieve and gain, but he perseveres. Alas, the knowledge of the tale of the turning gate consumes him. In the intertitle where we are led to believe that Gyung-soo remembers the tale of the turning gate, we become witnesses of the unwanted effects of a mis-remembered and mis-appropriated past. In Gyung-soo's case, he becomes impotent in bed, and is man-handled by the impression that he is the snake in the ancient fable. The conclusion of the film is more of a signifier that Hong has completed his uncomfortable exploration of a man who is unable to reconcile the past and the present (with his uncommon inability to remember, or remember correctly), and not merely as a closing to a modern and straightforward re-telling of an ancient Korean tale.

The utter simplification of the film's title gives you the impression that the film is merely about the tale, which for me is only one of the nuggets of the past that Gyung-soo would have to wrestle with. The film is much more than that --- it concerns the act of remembrance and of inviting oneself to an unexplored past. Hong gives us clues --- prolonged moments that connote both the serenity and chaos of remembering, that book written by the centennial author who killed himself (I'd like to believe that a hundred years on Earth would invite further misapprehensions with the past), the dual-format observed, and the almost coincidental re-acquaintances with objects of Gyung-soo's past.

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