Un Certain Regard
• Directed by HONG Sangsoo
• Cast KIM Sang-kyung, YU Jun-sang, MOON So-ri, YOUN Yuh-jung, YEA Ji-won
By JANG Byung-won
No one can deny the value of HONG Sangsoo as one of the most prominent directors of 21st century Korean cinema. For the last decade or so, as the director’s ideals were established and became ripe, HONG Sangsoo’s films emerged as a mighty fortress for Korean cinema. Working at a distance from the commotion of Korean films in the new century resulting from an acute industrialization drive, HONG Sangsoo had secured his own fame both in and out of the country through unique and daring pieces of work. Hahaha is the 10th film made by HONG Sangsoo, a director who first appeared in mid 1990s in a rather crude and foreign way. With that special sound coming from the word ‘tenth’, the film presents a full collection of HONG Sangsoo’s cinematic traits.
Hahaha evenly portrays elements one would expect of a HONG Sangsoo movie. Two clusters of stories proceeding in a similar fashion. Two trips are experienced by two (or one) people. Someone pledging to live a better life in the future. The ragged desire of males that end in empty failures. The maneuvers of love that once again lead to love triangles. Men turning back from the door. Hazy dream scenes. A general with strong powers. Desperate pursuit of salvation and enlightenment. Constant drinking and drunkenness. These are some of them to mention a few. The film begins when film director JO Mun-kyeong, who is planning to immigrate to Canada, and film critic BANG Jung-sik meet and discover they had both traveled to Tongyeong a while ago. Drinking makgolli (rice alcohol), they decide to each share an episode from their trips. Mun-kyeong gets to know WANG Seong-ok, a divorcee working as a cultural site guide and chases after her. Seong-ok already has a semi-lover, Jeong-ho, who’s a poet, but when she finds out Jeong-ho is also seeing NO Jeong-hwa(KIM Kyu-ri) who works at the shipyard, Seong-ok turns her attention to Mun-kyeong. When the couple spend the night together for the first time, Mun-kyeong asks Seong-ok to marry him and go to Canada with him. A married man, Jung-sik invites his flight-attendant girlfriend Yeon-ju to Tongyeong and they stay together at the hotel. Through his friend Jeong-ho, the poet who lives in Tongyeong, Jung-sik becomes acquainted with Seong-ok and the two couples get along naturally. Suffering from depression, Jung-sik is emotionally very unstable, feeling bad about Yeon-ju who continuously seeks confirmation of his love and the fact that he is married.
Hahaha speaks in a typically HONG Sangsoo styled language. The stories start out in from very different perspectives but a series of episodes gradually show a repetitive cycle and the dialogue and events small and big proceed in parallel with variations. It is not until the end of the film that the truth comes out in the open, that Mun-kyeong and Jun-sik had stayed in Tongyeong at the same time and the characters they come across are one and the same although the two men manage to never cross paths. This is a structure we’ve witnessed in The Power of Kangwon Province, a story of a man and woman’s journey through the same place at the same time. The characters in HONG Sangsoo’s films may think they are always far apart from each other but are in fact always in close proximity, and objects or feelings that felt intimate are shown to be distant having a large gap in between. Like the two men who walk back in the footsteps in the snow in Woman is the Future of Man (the first scene in Hahaha overlaps with that of Woman Is the Future of Man), they are just shuttling along on the road. Still sly as he is, HONG Sangsoo pretends he is telling two different stories.
A clean ending is a rare one in a HONG Sangsoo film, and those in Hahaha end their journey by taking a long way back to the original point where they departed. Their voyage starts from a deficient position but in the end there is nothing much at the final stop. As travelers and observers they stray through empty motels or bars in the country wishing to penetrate each other’s thoughts, failing to find any connecting points. Like in HONG Sangsoo’s other films, Haha ha’s characters are often overconfident about their beliefs and thoughts, foolish, and are on the verge of ruining everything. They make poor excuses when their ugly desires are revealed, talk of something they have no idea about, and get into dog fights out of cheap jealousy. One special feature is whenever the episodes of the two men intersect, black and white photographs of them drinking in Cheonggyesan mountain are inserted. These scenes that act as a pause separating the rough episodes seem to be substituting what ‘subtitles’ did in HONG Sangsoo’s former films.
As HONG had always done with his titles, ‘Hahaha’ is ambiguous in its meaning. Primarily it comes from the Chinese character ‘ha’ meaning summer, the season when Mun-kyeong and Jun-sik were in Tongyeong, and also ‘ha’, the broad laughter of the two men. This ambiguous title that won’t converge into one meaning is complex in the way that its meaning cannot be fixed. The detailed description of everyday life in Hahaha is still the same and vivid episodes and creative lines are admirable. The episodes of Mun-kyeong and Jung-sik are not only close in time and distance, but their dialogues, happenings and motives are very similar under closer inspection. Celebrating the monumental event of his 10th film, the actors HONG adores have all gathered together. A large group of HONG Sangsoo’s familiar personas appear in the film including KIM Sang-kyung, an actor made for and who can best interpret HONG Sangsoo’s characters, YEA Ji-won who accompanied KIM in Turning Gate, YU Jun-sang following his role in previous HONG feature Like You Know It All and even KIM Young-ho and KEY Joo-bong from Night and Day. New faces like YOUN Yuh-jung, MOON So-ri, KIM Gang-woo and KIM Kyu-ri were added to the list, showing how they become assimilated into the typical HONG Sangsoo character.
Unlike his narcissistic characters, Hahaha director HONG Sangsoo is a calm and relaxed person. The film maintains a generous view of the self-contradicting and limited characters and epitomizes HONG Sangsoo’s way of making brilliant jokes with cheerful disenchantment. More than anything, it is a meaningful accomplishment as the tenth film of one of the most important artists of our era, one who has been called a miracle in Korean cinema history. Fit for such objective significance, HONG Sangsoo quietly sums up a past where he has walked down one road consistently.