Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors
(Korean title of which appears to be a more compact exclamation of the main character’s name: Oh! Soojung
), after a first viewing a few weeks ago, is one of the Hongs I remain ambivalent about. I watched the whole thing with interest and a certain degree of investment in the characters, but, in sum, Hong’s project here seems more an exercise in narrative form rather than content. I do enjoy that kind of movie homework, as much as the next person on these boards, but this one left me with a feeling of diminishing returns, of a narrative theorem bound up in the threads of its own hypotheses.
Thinking about it over the past weeks, I think the movie had specifically two Hong-ian traits or tropes that kept me at arm’s length. The first might be its retold/revised Rashomon
-narrative construct. A later film, Right Now, Wrong Then
, watched a few seasons ago and having a similar structure (if I’m remembering correctly), was also one I remained cool on, and the return to a drinking location at around the midway point of Soojung
, signaling a narrative looping back, found me with a distinct feeling of story-fatigue. The movie remained just interesting to me after that point, contemplating the plot from a remove.
The second thing is perhaps more a personal quirk of spectatorship, discovered while watching, some seasons ago, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate
is, to my mind, the quintessential Hong film. Piecing together the trajectory of Hong’s career, by way of this extended dive into his filmography in recent seasons, it was this film that felt to me, for whatever reason, like the moment when Hong became Hong, or, at least, the point where his particular craft and vision come together in a distinct and undeniable way. It is, to my eyes, in recalling certain scenes and sequences, within the bounds of its subtle, unshowy visual strategies, a cinematographically immaculate work. Seemingly incidental elements such as the color of certain garments – a bright orange-red t-shirt, a green turtleneck sweater – and how they form concentrated masses of tonal vibration against the neutral earth-tone backdrops of rural landscapes and architecture – the whole film is a structurally and tonally perfect one in my mind.
And I still ended up selling off the nice-looking Korean blu ray of the thing, because the film contained, as I found it to be, an almost intolerably intimate sex scene, the one occurring in a hotel room in the film’s second half. Normally not a prude in such matters, having more recently just kind of blinked through a decades-late first viewing of Eyes Wide Shut
(perhaps the distanciating effect of all those masks), I wondered what it was that made me kind of curl in on myself during this particular one-take medium-shot humping scene. The softcore-level explicitness cut with recognizably mundane detailing? The awareness of the performers’ efforts in realizing the degree of realism, and the attendant consideration of what kinds of, uh, accoutrements were the essential “costuming” in the scene, the sheathing barrier between all that bared skin?
The only other movie scene that set me off in a comparable way might be Halle Berry and Billy Bob T. fixing to break that couch in Monster’s Ball
. End of oversharing, here.
Which is all a long way of saying that I found that this movie, Virgin
, or Soojung
, also skirted that line of uncomfortable intimacy for me, if not to the same degree (the camera is placed a ways away from the bed in the hotel room scene here), then to similar feelings of voyeuristic intrusion (even from several feet away, it is apparent that the performers are engaging in unsimulated acts of, what is the term, heavy petting
). Between the
sexual assault/attempted rape in the cramped guest house room and the unexplained but plainly presented scene of incestuous goings-on in Soojung’s bedroom,
the film has such a creepingly oppressive atmosphere of sexual danger and debasement (perhaps a thematic extension of Soojung’s internalized ambivalence and fear in regards to sex), that I find I can’t read the final
deflowering scene as simply the prelude to an unambiguously happily-ever-after ending (even as the title of that final section of the film is apparently a Korean saying which translates as something like “All goes well once you find your perfect match”).
To be heavy-handed about it, the final stripping bare is an event that leaves, both literally and figuratively, a mark, and I can’t be sure that Soojung’s smile and gaze in the last shot – a weirdly and slightly off-kilter framing in that shot too, in my recollection – are indicative only of clear resolution, or perhaps also of some more deeply ingrained detachment and resignation.
Those two qualities seem to me to be the character’s most pervasive ones throughout the film, and the ambiguous nature of the twice-told narrative makes me wonder (albeit without any great feeling of investment) if the whole thing isn’t just a series of hypothetical takes, narrative and performative exercises on the themes of sex and social mores, centered around a young woman whose passively unexplored depths of unhappiness are pinned, narrowly, rather coarsely, on her sexual status.
And although it’s neither here nor there, the death of Lee Eun-Ju in 2005, by suicide, may be coloring (casting a pall on) some of what I’m saying here, what I felt to be an unshakable undercurrent of dread and defeat in the film.
And having written all that, I can still see how the ending is also perfectly readable as a happy and hopeful one for the couple. That’s the reading I’d like to hang the movie on, to shelve it as more or less a resolved narrative in my mind. But the film, with its narrative tricks and turns, doesn’t seem to allow for that in any watertight way.
I haven’t read through all the preceding pages of this thread, but I do recall reading a post by therewillbeblus likening the narrative puzzle here to the one in Mulholland Drive
. Without citing explicit parallels, that’s a comparison that just feels right to me, especially with that passing but weirdly unnerving detail of both male characters luring Soojung into the isolated side street, to show her (I’m recalling from memory) “a strange man with a girl”, which may or may not be describing the aforementioned
scene of assault in the rented room.
That I’ve written this much shows that there is something to the film, of course, and to wrap, I’ll say that I found some of the high-contrast b&w cinematography here, in its low-key way, just the most moodily atmospheric this side of Müller or Lubtchansky. Still, the movie was a tricky one for me, though surely worthy of a revisit because of that.