The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, 1996

A struggling, self-absorbed writer named Hyo-sub (Kim Yui-seong) visits the home of a former colleague, ostensibly to retrieve a submitted draft for further editing (although, more likely, to probe into the possibility of receiving a writing fee advance on the authored piece). Having arranged a meeting with his occasional lover, a young woman named Min-jae (Cho Eun-sook) at a diner – undoubtedly, to insinuate himself for a free meal and to goad the obliging Min-jae, a former publishing house employee, into proofreading his manuscript – the brazen Hyo-sub then asks her for spending money under the pretense of accidentally leaving his wallet at home (a transparent excuse that Min-jae does not at all believe, but nevertheless humors). The pathetic (and lopsided) transaction becomes even more reprehensible when Hyo-sub is subsequently observed inside a bookstore casting a sideways glance at an attractive woman as she browses one of his novels before meeting his other lover, a married woman named Po-kyong (Lee Eung-kyung), where he ostentatiously – and atypically – pays for a room at a modest, but higher end, hourly rate love motel for the afternoon tryst. Demanding complete devotion from Po-kyong at the moment of coupling – even as he reveals little compunction in continuing his meaningless affair with the lovestruck Min-jae who maintains a series of odd and occasionally nefarious jobs in order to support him – Hyo-sub seeks reassurance from his deeply conflicted married lover with a vow that she abstain from a sexual relationship with her husband Dong-woo (Park Jin-seong), a verminophobic businessman whose work often sends him away from home on interminable road trips for ill-planned, unproductive client meetings. However, as Hyo-sub continues to struggle to come to terms with his failed vocation, Po-kyong and Min-jae find themselves inextricably entangled in their lover’s ever-spiraling, self-destructive cycle of emotional inertia, abuse, and manipulation.

Recalling the disenchanted and acutely tragicomic bohemianism epitomized by Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well is haunting, intelligently structured, and elegantly understated portrait of alienation, emotional vacuity, and failed intellectualism. Hong Sang-soo visually reflects the characters’ sense of disconnection and isolation through distancing medium shots, acts of dedramatized sexuality, and creation of narrative ellipses through episodic point-of-view changes among the protagonists (that nevertheless, retain a temporal linearity to the film). Shooting in predominantly insular (and claustrophobic) interior spaces – restaurants, motel rooms, ticket booths, buses, and makeshift recording studios – Hong’s exterior shots often depict a similar violation of space: whether innocuous, as in Hyo-sub picking a miniature citrus fruit from his neighbor’s potted plant or an ailing passenger unable to suppress his nausea while sitting next to the obsessive Dong-woo; or gravely reprehensible, as in the drunken Hyo-sub’s incessant harassment of an acquaintance’s fianc√© and subsequently, a waitress after she accidentally drops a tray of food or a samaritan who tries to protect Min-jae during a violent argument with Hyo-sub at an alley. It is through this recurring theme of personal transgression that the film conveys the implicit correlation between alienation and violence, psychological and physical abuse, sex without intimacy and exploitation. In the end, it is this cross-contamination of Hyo-sub’s existential malady to the people around him – including those who try to save him – that, like the metaphoric errant barnyard animal of the title, leaves a tainted, pungent aftertaste in its inutile, decaying, and burdensome wake.

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