Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Review of Turning Gate

"Turning Gate" (2002) by director Hong Sang-soo is one of those movies where the profundity sneaks up on you. For at least the first half of the film I wasn’t even sure if I was watching a depressing midlife crisis, a romantic comedy, a realist art-film exercise or a modernist fable adaptation. Where "Turning Gate" ultimately succeeds, is in being all these things simultaneously.

The protagonist, Gyung-soo, is himself a somewhat paradoxical success/failure. While we are told of his decently lucrative stage-acting career, his crossover attempt into film has resulted in a disappointing financial bust. Gyung-soo is fairly handsome and, as he mentions late in the film, has a strange magnetism that attracts people to him. Yet he is unable to find viable love. His two relationships with women (one of them inadvertently the crush of an old friend and the other a stranger met on a train) form the bulk of the film.

Hong Sang-soo finds a realist mode in his own personal style that is so unhurried that we might be fooled into thinking that he has no agenda. No visible effort is put into making any given conversation arrive at a predetermined conclusion or to take on specific meanings. Dialogue progresses with incomplete sentences, non-sequiturs, awkward pauses, unsophisticated responses, passive aggressions and trivialities. The characters are realized in such a manner as to change between likable, flawed, sympathetic and pathetic from moment to moment with little warning. They have the complicated, ambiguous personalities of everyday humanity. The narrative arc sometimes feels like it has no idea where it is going (an illusion, of course, since Hong Sang-soo knows exactly where he wants the film to end) and the sensation of drifting with the tides gradually aligns us with Gyung-soo’s own confusion, melancholy and desire for love and meaning.

In the second half of the film the sensation of aimless drifting and near-random events is slyly withdrawn. Patterns, coincidences and half-meanings begin to accrue. Buried memories resurface, honest emotions are expressed, surprising links are made and, in the suddenly karmic conclusion, Gyung-soo’s entire story takes on the form of the fable referred to in the title. The revelation, at once upsetting and surprising, inevitable and predictable, feels like a final puzzle piece dropping into place. Perhaps strangest of all, however, is that Hong Sang-soo has provided us with an ending twist, without ever having posed a mystery. What the assembled picture-puzzle reveals is nearly as ambiguous as the story at the start. In Hong Sang-soo’s film, there is still no easy answer, no clarifying revelation, to life itself.

Walrus Rating: 7.0 (but growing higher the more I think about it)

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