VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE BY HER BACHELORS: Revisiting Hong Sang-soo’s Third Feature

Hong Sang-soo is one of the most prolific directors working today; between 1996 (The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well) and 2022 (The Novelist’s Film) the South Korean filmmaker has released 27 features and three shorts, many of which have been honored at the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Naturally, his output has increased dramatically over the years as he has gained increased control over every aspect of his filmmaking process, allowing him to shoot what he wants when he wants while answering to no one but himself. Indeed, from filling multiple roles on his productions, including frequently serving as cinematographer and composer, to shooting on shoestring budgets for his own production company, with the proceeds of his previous films funding the next one, one could say Hong has perfected the art of being a truly independent filmmaker.

Hong’s third feature, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, was also his last film to be made from a full script; following this, he moved first to treatments and then to writing the pages for the day’s scenes literally the morning they are to be shot⁠ — a method that Dennis Lim, in his wonderful monograph on Hong’s sixth feature, Tale of Cinema, aptly describes as “a procrastinator’s simultaneous dream and nightmare.” Originally released in 2000 and soon to begin streaming in a brand-new restoration on Mubi, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is an intriguing glimpse at early Hong, filled with many recurring themes and motifs that fans of his later work will recognize, placed within a bifurcated story structure that is one of his most formally audacious. It does not quite reach the heights of some of his later masterpieces, but as a portrait of the artist as a (relatively) young man, it is fascinating.

Like You Know It All

Like many of Hong’s films before and since, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (the English title references an iconic artwork by Marcel Duchamp) is centered on a very messy love triangle. Soo-jung (Lee Eun-ju) is a young woman working as a scriptwriter for cable TV. Her producer, Young-soo (Moon Sung-keun), invites her along to an art gallery where he hopes the owner, a wealthy friend of his named Jae-hoon (Jeong Bo-seok), can be convinced to help finance an independent film he is working on. Needless to say, Jae-hoon is instantly attracted to Soo-jung, much to the chagrin of Young-soo, who harbors feelings for his friend and colleague that he has not acted on due to his own marriage.

VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE BY HER BACHELORS: Revisiting Hong Sang-soo’s Third Feature
source: Grasshopper Films

The first half of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is told primarily from Jae-hoon’s point of view as he struggles to seduce Soo-jung, only for her to first tell him she’ll only date him while they’re drinking and then to reveal that she is actually still a virgin. Jae-hoon is eager to rectify this, but Soo-jung is not so easily convinced; she’ll only part with her virginity when she wants, on her own terms. This frustrates Jae-hoon, to the point that he books a fabulous hotel and essentially demands Soo-jung show up to give herself to him. (It is this scene in the hotel that opens Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, for which the rest of the film essentially functions as a flashback, showing us how our characters got there.) Needless to say, Jae-hoon is one of a long line of male protagonists in Hong films whose single-minded focus on having sex ensures that he is clueless as to every other aspect of how to have a healthy relationship with a woman.

The second half of the film replays the narrative thus far from Soo-jung’s perspective, with several scenes repeating themselves. Yet Soo-jung’s versions of these moments are often far different from Jae-hoon’s. While she appears quite quiet and passive in Jae-hoon’s recollections of key meetings, in her own versions she is far more assertive and even snarky in the way she reacts to him. Through her perspective, we learn that while she’s not keen on losing her virginity to Jae-hoon at any random moment, she did pursue him for a relationship with that eventual goal in mind. The woman he perceived as an easily malleable and manipulatable young thing is actually the one pulling all the strings.

Right Now, Wrong Then

After their first meeting at the gallery, Jae-hoon and Soo-jung run into each other seemingly by chance in a park; Jae-hoon is there on his lunch break, while Soo-jung is on a shoot. In the first version of their meeting, Jae-hoon is amazed to have run into her⁠ — especially since she also happened to pick up his lost gloves off a bench he was sitting on and returned them to him. But in the second version, we learn that not only did Soo-jung suggest to the crew that they shoot in that park, knowing Jae-hoon would be there, but she also purposefully picked up those gloves, knowing they were his. What he⁠ — and the audience⁠ — thought was a random encounter was carefully calculated by Soo-jung so that she could see Jae-hoon again.

VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE BY HER BACHELORS: Revisiting Hong Sang-soo’s Third Feature
source: Grasshopper Films

In another scene in the first half of the film, Jae-hoon appears to be aggressively insisting on giving Soo-jung a ride home, to the point that he comes off as a bully. But in Soo-jung’s version, she agreed immediately and happily as soon as he suggested the idea. It quickly becomes clear, when comparing the two perspectives, that Jae-hoon’s frustration over not being able to immediately consummate their relationship colored nearly every other event along the way. All he can remember is how difficult it was to get her into bed, and thus every other memory of her is rendered in his mind as a struggle.

At one point, when the two of them are fooling around, Soo-jung stops Jae-hoon from going all the way. He is furious; even when she claims it is because she has her period, he tells her he doesn’t care. But according to Soo-jung’s perspective, what really happened was that he called her the wrong name in bed; upset that the man she was about to lose her virginity to seemingly saw her as just another in a long line of previous conquests, she refused to go any further.

In both versions, Jae-hoon comes off as inconsiderate and unfeeling for still trying to demand sex, but Soo-jung’s version gives her additional agency and increases our empathy for her. Which version of events is actually true? Throughout the film, Hong leaves that up to us to decide, and I am curious if audience perspectives are also divided along gender lines: As a woman, I found myself believing Soo-jung’s version far more easily than Jae-hoon’s, but perhaps a man would feel differently.

Woman Is the Future of Man

Originally shot in gorgeous, high-contrast black-and-white on 35mm film by cinematographer Choi Yeong-taek, the newly restored film looks absolutely lovely even when ugly, unpleasant things are happening in it. Hong now shoots his movies primarily himself and always on digital⁠ — the better for cranking them out easily, cheaply, and efficiently⁠ — with a reliance on extremely long takes and abrupt zooms. As someone who has watched so many recent Hong films that I feel strangely comforted by the familiarity of his highly specific camera techniques, the more traditional cinematography of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors often feels odd and out of place⁠ — especially since the story is still so quintessentially Hong. Yet there’s no denying that, even with the strange formality lent to the film by these technical choices, it looks remarkably beautiful.

VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE BY HER BACHELORS: Revisiting Hong Sang-soo’s Third Feature
source: Grasshopper Films

Hong films rarely have non-diegetic music; instead, he tends to use music cues only to punctuate or transition between scenes. Here, the score is composed by Ok Kil-sung, who has only one other feature film credit: Hong’s debut, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. The piano-laden instrumentals he provides for this film would feel out of place in probably any other modern romantic comedy-drama, but in a Hong film, they feel exactly right. And naturally, because this is a Hong film, the scenes they link include plenty taking place at a table in a bar or a restaurant, with the characters surrounded by more and more empty bottles as they get increasingly drunk and increasingly open about their feelings. Indeed, to love Hong is to love his honest, amusing depictions of drinking culture and the way alcohol lowers one’s inhibitions, for better or for worse.

The original Korean title of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is Oh! Soo-jung, and indeed, whether or not you think her angle on events is closest to reality, it is this singular, complex woman around whom everything and everyone else in the film revolves. This was the first lead role for up-and-coming actress Lee Eun-ju; her quiet intelligence and keen glances make Soo-jung a memorable heroine, one of the first great Hong women in the years when his films had a far more masculine perspective before he began making movies with Kim Min-hee and further exploring the feminine side of the human relationships that have always fascinated him. Lee tragically killed herself in 2005, at the age of only 24; Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is not only a fine example of her talents but also a fitting elegy to a star lost far too soon.

Conclusion

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is a clever, complicated portrayal of all the little pitfalls, miscommunications, and manipulations that characterize modern relationships between men and women. In other words, it’s a Hong Sang-soo movie, and a forerunner of so many of the ones he would make later.

What do you think? What’s your favorite Hong Sang-soo movie? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The new restoration of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors begins streaming exclusively on Mubi on June 12, 2022. You can also purchase it on Blu-ray from Grasshopper Films.


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