A dashing and affluent man named Jae-hoon (Jeong Bo-seok) arrives alone at a hotel resort and begins to occupy his time lazing about (and cursorily inspecting the ventilation system of) the empty, comfortable suite until the anxious distraction of a telephone call from his mobile phone – auspiciously ringing the tune of a tin-pot, synthesized rendition of Ravel’s Bolero – reveals that he has arranged for a daytime rendezvous with a young screenwriter, Soo-jung (Lee Eun-joo). Claiming to be running late – and undoubtedly having second thoughts on the consummation of their nascent affair – Soo-jung attempts to postpone their unavoidable sexual encounter for another day against the unyielding and exasperated entreaties of a persistent Jae-hoon. Proceeding through episodic (and numerically demarcated) chapters, the film then follows an apparently linear narrative trajectory as it traces the evolution of the couple’s relationship from one fateful day when Jae-hoon’s friend, an independent filmmaker named Young-soo (Moon Seong-keun) attends an art exhibition (at the appropriately named Growrich Gallery) with Soo-jung, ostensibly for inspiration for their ongoing project, and the two demure and introverted colleagues find themselves politely acquiescing to have lunch with the personable and confident Jae-hoon (perhaps to broach the subject of financial backing for the film). However, despite the seemingly inexorable progression of the story towards the moment of the unrealized union – a preempted relational milestone irreverently symbolized by the image a stalled aerial passenger tram – the film then oddly reverts to episodes from the preceding chapters, as experienced from an alternate point-of-view (presumably, Soo-jung’s) that, in the process, tempers (if not negates) the perceived reality of their anticlimactic coupling.
Recalling the boldly elliptical, modernist structure of early Alain Resnais, but deeply rooted in the muted aesthetics and indigenous culture of Korean society, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is an audacious and drolly incisive, yet elegantly (and understatedly) composed human comedy on memory, perspective, and intimacy. Like the idiosyncratic and ingeniously referential English title – derived from Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic two-glass panel, mixed material modern art piece, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (a.k.a. The Large Glass) – the film reflects the artist’s abstract and relativistic exposition on the amorphous and dynamic (and consequently, ephemeral) nature of romantic relationships between men and women. (In the Duchamp masterpiece, a figurative assembly of suitors on the lower panel are materially placed apart from the bride situated alone on the upper panel.) Hong Sang-soo similarly incorporates a mixed media approach – interweaving traditional and modern elements of film and novel – to create emotional dimension and character texturality in the narrative absence of objective reality and absolute perspective: permutations of chapters that reveal contradicting ancillary details and high contrast black and white compositions that underscore Soo-jung and Jae-hoon’s alternate points of view and more importantly, the implicit irony of situation in the perceived development of their relationship. In presenting a dispassionate and irreconcilable chronicle of the search for intimacy and companionship, Hong creates a bittersweet and fractured tale of love, romance, and human desire.
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