On The Occasion Of Remembering The Turning Gate Review

From the Korean director of The Power of Kangwon Province and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, On The Occasion of Remembering The Turning Gate is another deceptively straightforward examination of the mechanics of relationships with the associated themes of loneliness and inability to communicate that Hong Sang-soo does so well.

Kim Kyungsoo is an out of work actor. He has had some success on the screen but is better known for stage work. After he is dropped from a new film project, his life becomes a bit aimless and he leaves Seoul to visit a friend Sungwoo, in Chuncheon. On a boat trip on Lake Soyang, he is told the legend of a man who has been turned into a snake, but continues his pursuit of a princess and winds himself around her. The princess escapes into a temple and the snake is caught in a rainstorm and turns away at the place that is now called the Turning Gate.

Kyungsoo is an unusual character to have as a lead in a film, as he doesn’t seem to have much character or personality. At least not when off the stage. He is not very eloquent and his character is revealed by his clumsy attempts at communication and his awkwardness in social situations. He is considered a good actor by women he meets, who are initially attracted to him presumably because of his looks and modest fame, but he is not regarded highly by other people in his profession. Women are particularly unfathomable to him. He is unable to be the person Myungsuk wants him to be and escapes from Chuncheon when her attentions become too much for him. Travelling back to Seoul on the train he meets Sunyoung, and tries to be the person Myungsuk wanted him to be, but Sunyoung has a different image of him based on an event in their childhood. The person Kyungsoo wants to be for her is at odds with this preconceived image Sunyoung has created in her mind and trying to wrap himself into her life, Kyungsoo soon finds himself at his own Turning Gate.

Kyungsoo feels isolated and his attempts to break out from the aimlessness of his life and reaching out fail through this inability to connect with other people. His behaviour is clumsy and maladroit and his actions are inappropriate. His isolation is not entirely of his own making however, as people seem to already have preconceived notions of the person he is. He may have hidden depths of feeling, but he has no way of expressing them in words or simple acts of relating to another person. He seems totally removed from everyone else. In a way perhaps as a metaphor for the film, finding out what it is trying to express might be difficult and we might come to it with preconceptions based on other films, but its true worth can be discovered if we give it time and accept it on its own terms.

The film is slowly paced with an seemingly uncomplicated (and apparently mostly improvised) mise en scène of single unedited takes, but it is actually carefully and symmetrically constructed. Many of the scenes with the two women are almost reverse mirror images of each other and the central theme of the Turning Gate is also evoked at the end of the film. Key phrases – such as the need to remain human and not turn into a monster - are also repeated within the film. It is not a film where a great deal happens, but there are pivotal scenes upon which the whole drama and meaning of the film functions. Principally though, the film expresses itself through slow revelation of the characters. Unusually, it is hard to relate to the lead character Kyungsoo, who is inexpressive and reticent. Poor Kyungsoo doesn’t seem to know his own nature and is reduced to a blank template for each of the women to work off. Both women in the film are much more expressive although their natures are still somewhat elusive and much of their character remains below the surface. The female characters are very well played, their characters revealed through slight nervous mannerisms, gestures and behaviour.

At present the Korean Region 3 release is the only version of the film available. Like a lot of Korean DVDs, it is handsomely packaged in an amaray case within a strong cardboard slipcase. Korean DVDs also tend to be NTSC. English and French subtitles are provided for the feature only. There are no subtitles on the extra features, but apart from the commentary tracks, the extras don’t really need any.

The 1.85:1 image is transferred anamorphically. There are a few white dust spots on the print every now and again, but generally the picture quality looks good with strong contrast and good colour balance. On closer examination however there is some bad digital artefacting causing jerky and blocky movement on the screen. This is particularly noticeable for example at the start of Chapter 4 where gently swaying branches and plants cause the image to shift badly, but it also be seen when people move on screen. This is only really noticeable in close-up – in fact I watched the DVD the first time without noticing any real problem - but it is there and quite irritating once you become aware of it. Another rather minor irritation is the editing of scenes which produces a slight, barely perceptible jump between scenes. Not a fault of the DVD, since the same can be seen in The Power of Kangwon Province, it seems to be a consequence of how the actual print is edited together. Maybe a less heavy glue would help the prints slip across the reels more easily. Fortunately however, there is not a lot of editing or montage, as the director likes to use long single-take shots.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack are provided. The DD5.1 soundtrack seems like the obvious preference, but I found it a little overdone on the surround sound effects which became slightly distracting particularly in the parallel rainy scenes in the film. On the other hand, the rain scenes do enclose you within the film and perhaps highlight the isolation of the main character, so the effect could be intentional. The DD2.0 soundtrack is just as good for a film like this, but either choice will please.

There are two commentary tracks, but they are entirely in Korean with no subtitles, which is not unexpected but a pity, because I think some additional information on this film from the director might have been interesting.

Cast & Crew
Short biographies for the principal crew and cast are provided in Korean text only.

Photo Gallery
A very nice slideshow presentation of behind the scenes and on the set photographs – not the usual stills taken directly from the film.

Highlight (10:50)
Another interesting but essentially pointless feature on Korean DVDs is the highlight feature, which is basically a mini version of the film condensed down into around 10 minutes. This one is of average quality. It is presented letterboxed without subtitles and is a little grainy.

Theatrical trailer(1.35)
Set to a jaunty mambo tune, the trailer presents the film in an entirely different character and tone to how it really is.

Making Film (3.27)
A couple of scenes are shown being filmed with some soundbites from the crew. Quite interesting, not too long and therefore not particularly disadvantageous if you don’t speak Korean.

The sometimes weighty themes and realistic looks at relationships that you come to expect from a Hong Sang-soo film are all here and depicted with perhaps greater finesse that any of his films to date. Making the lead character essentially unsympathetic, or at least difficult to relate to, adds a necessary distance that allows the viewer to see the underlying humour of the situation, while losing none of the seriousness of tone that characterises Hong Sang-soo’s earlier films. It is this light touch that gives the Turning Gate an extra level of realism and makes it a more emotionally multi-dimensional and satisfying experience.

9 out of 10
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