No movie this year will benefit as much from repeat viewings than Hong Sang-soo’s A Tale of Cinema, which is so subtly split down the middle it makes Tropical Malady and its equally daring bifurcation midway through its running time seem like an experiment in excess. Comparisons to Hong’s black-and-white Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors will be inevitable, and understandably so—both films are obsessed with the subjective experience of movie-love, a relationship predicated on the same language of trust, compassion, betrayal, and insult that informs any connection between two volatile lovers. An intricate conflation of filmgoing and lovemaking, Hong’s 2000 dramedy—via its delicate recapitulation of events in the lives of two shmucks and the woman they love—illuminated the different ways we perceive the world. A Tale of Cinema is not nearly as allegorical but it also reflects the way movies filter and represent the human experience.
Sang-weon (Ki-woo Lee) bumps into Yeong-shil (Uhm Ji-won) after not seeing the young woman in years, and after an awkward reunion, the pair makes a pact to die together as virgins. The characters in Hong’s films do and say the darndest things, something Hong seems to understand and actively address throughout a A Tale of Cinema, which is predicated on the notion that cinema’s two-dimensional surface is incapable of ever representing the complete reality of three-dimensional lives. Hong also understands how unforgiving audiences can be, because just as you’re ready to give up on the sheepish Sang-weon and irritating Yeong-shil and their context-free suicide agreement, Tong-su (Kim Sang-kyung) walks out of a movie theater, not far behind an older, more relaxed Yeong-shil, and it takes a second to process that A Tale of Cinema’s first half is really a film-within-a-film. It takes considerably longer to come to the equally disorienting realization that Tong-su’s emerging obsession with Yeong-shil isn’t just some stalker-star scenario but that the film-within-a-film is in fact a retelling of an ill-fated love affair between Tong-su and a woman from his adolescence.
Hong’s film is simply told but resonates with profound meaning. This isn’t just some ordinary tale about art imitating life and vice versa; given the structure of the film and overlapping details, it’s easy and tempting to read it as such, except the film-within-a-film doesn’t provoke Tong-su to imitate its story as much as it opens the floodgates of memory. Hong recognizes the power of cinema to connect us to our personal experiences, but in the way Tong-su sadly projects his feelings for a long-ago flame onto Yeong-shil, he also acknowledges its deluding strength. Buñuel would say illusion travels by projector in the film, provoking Tong-su to try to get right what he once got so painfully wrong. Both Tong-su and his on-screen doppelganger are scarcely complex, at least when viewed independently of each other—seen together, it’s lovely how the tiniest revelations and serendipitous occurrences from the first half of the story fill emotional gaps in the second and vice versa. Yeong-sil, on the other hand, is appropriately one-dimensional—she represents, if anything, an obscure object of desire, neither here nor there but everywhere in Tong-su’s mind.
A Tale of Cinema certainly isn’t without its imperfections. Hong’s camera is typically stationary—an aesthetic approach that has earned the director shortsighted comparisons to Ozu (you know, because they’re both Asian)—but here it moves a little bit more, with many shots punctuated by a zoom into and out of the story’s action. Hong understands the zoom as part of the language of cinema but he doesn’t necessarily use it the same way Altman does: to mimic the way people look at the world, redirecting our gaze to the most important action within a scene. Hong’s zooms stutter, but not necessarily in the same organic fashion a lover might trip over his words. Arbitrarily employed throughout the entirety of film, these zooms only seem to make sense within the context of the film-within-a-film. But besides Hong’s failure to more clearly and logically distinguish between the real and fictional world of the film, A Tale of Cinema remains an intoxicatingly heady and emotionally rewarding delineation of the Proustian power of cinema.