A retrospective look at the first feature by any major auteur tends to bring-out some desire for a grand analysis of their work — and often, looking at the beginnings of a certain style and how it’s been refined over time can be of more interest than assessing the quality of said film itself. With 1996’s The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, Hong Sang-soo is not yet employing his signature, intuitive zooms, but he is dealing with what would become an implicit theme of his filmography: The experience of loneliness, and how hard it can be to break free of it. Loneliness nearly destroys Hyo-seop (Kim Eui-Sung), a novelist who’s engaged in an extramarital affair with Bo-kyung (Lee Eun-Kyung); who gets drunk with old classmates; and whose self-loathing prevents him from connecting with others.
Hong Sang-soo is not yet employing his signature, intuitive zooms, but he is dealing with what would become an implicit theme of his filmography: The experience of loneliness.
But the focus of The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well is not only on Hyo-seop — the film also explores Bo-kyung’s feelings of alienation; the stresses of her germaphobe businessman husband, Dong-woo (Park Jin-sung); and the romantic longings of Min-jae (Cho Eun-sook), a ticket girl who’s in love with Hyo-seop. These stories are presented in four parts, as Hong articulates an existential dread that repeatedly leads his characters to disappointment (each narrative ends with an awkward sexual encounter). But the film’s dreariness and misanthropy become trying. Both Hyo-seop and Dong-woo are unrepentant narcissists, making it difficult to care about their downfalls — especially when their self-destructive behaviors lead to hurting others — and the women aren’t much more compelling, showing little personality as they bear the brunt of their partners’ anger. Neither is Hong’s formalist approach in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well enough to garner much interest — he favors static shots that provide little evidence of the more singular aesthetic he’d develop later. But worst of all is the missing sense of humor in Hong’s debut film, which makes its two-hour runtime feel particularly lugubrious, and marks The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well for completists only.