Hahaha director Hong Sang-Soo has been one of the more controversial figures on our podcast. VCinema co-host and Korean film scholar Rufus has played down the hype that Hong has garnered with his talky dramas while koreanfilm.org writer Adam Hartzell, during his recent appearance on our podcast (here), lauded the director’s work, calling Hong one of his personal favorites. Personally, only having seen one of Hong’s previous films, 2004’s Woman Is the Future of Man around the time of its DVD release, I haven’t had the opportunity to form much of an opinion of Hong’s work. Even my memories of that film are a little hazy; all I remember about, and I say this rather facetiously, is that it dealt with the folly of human relationships.
Oddly enough, even though nearly a decade has passed between the two films, they share similar themes and framing devices from which their themes are explored. Jo Mun-kyung (Kim Sang-kyung), a struggling filmmaker, and Bang Jung-sik (Yu Jun-sang), a film critic, get together for a drink and chat. Their conversation ends up revolving around Tongyeong, a coastal town they both coincidentally visited at the same time, so they decide to exchange stories, toasting and taking a drink after each one. Their stories revolve around the romantic and sexual exploits with women during their stay. Jo’s revolve around his pursuit of Wang Seong-ok (Moon So-ri), an impulsive tour guide with a poet, ex-marine boyfriend (Kim Kang-woo). Bang meanwhile, a married man with children, brings his mistress (Ye Ji-won) to the town with him. It appears that the town is small and the two characters’ stories are weaved together by shared experiences – people, places, and things – during their stays.
Hong’s weaving of the two stories together makes Hahaha, Cannes 2010’s Un Certain Regard prize recipient, an interesting example of narrative design and characterization. Not only is the audience made aware of the relationships between characters through their different interactions with each other, one example being the stern manner in which Jo’s mother (Yun Yeo-jeong), who owns a restaurant in the town, treats him contrasted with the gentle, motherly way that she treats the Kim Kang-woo’s poet character. Places and objects factor greatly into the stories as well by helping the audience able to decipher the timeline on which the two stories are taking place since they are sometimes occurring on different points and sometimes the same point. This approach of shared experience through different eyes is an interesting wrinkle which allows Hong, through his characters, tell the two stories with one leading almost seamlessly into another even when the stories are being told achronologically. On the other hand, you could argue that Hong’s narrative is all there is to the film. There aren’t any grand story arcs or revelations about human nature; the film appears to be completely driven by its wanting to tell its story and leave with the audience whatever it can. Even the characters have no clear goal to their stories other than to sit around and have a good time and, in the end, both Jo and Bang come off simply as slightly immature but loveable oafs who are as caring about their (and their partners’) happiness just as much as a roll in the hay.
The visual design of the film should be noted for its simplicity, much of which appears to be borne out of necessity. The film’s framing device of Jo and Bang meeting over drinks is shown through still shots with voiceover while their stories are completely in live action. This touch that may seem a little artsy, but necessary as to not confuse the world of the teller and his story. Hong’s odd choice to suddenly zoom in on something within the frame (such as a character’s reaction) is very distracting and does little but pull the audience out of the story. Luckily, this happens infrequently; the rest of the camerawork is fairly clean with otherwise little movement. The soundtrack is also sparse with just short piano flutters to help flavor the film a liitle.
In film today, the dominance of over-the-top aesthetics and hammy acting are frequently bemoaned as style over substance, so it might please some that Hahaha is one of those few films that is completely the opposite. Of course, for some, Hong’s experiment in narrative and characterization might not be worth the nearly two hour running time since there is little in the way of a compelling story surrounding the film, just the characters, flaws and all. To those people, the experience may seem about as interesting as eavesdropping on a conversation at the local coffee shop.
Hahaha was screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21st – May 5th. Hahaha still provided courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.