Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Hahaha

English Title: Hahaha
Korean Title: 하하하
Premiere Date: May 6, 2010
U.S. Release Year: N/A
Festival: Cannes (Prix Un Certain Regard)
Film Number: 10
First Viewing Number: 14
First Viewing Date: September 1, 2018
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 8
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 11
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 16
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 8
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 116 minutes (6th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color and Black & White
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Linear with two alternating protagonists, light repetition
Recurring Actors: Kim Sang-kyung (third appearance), Yoo Joon-sang (second appearance), Ye Ji-won (second appearance), Gi Ju-bong (second appearance), Kim Yeong-ho (second appearance), Moon So-ri (first appearance), Youn Yuh-jung (first appearance)
Season: Summer
Weather: Rainy, cloudy, windy, sunny
Alcohol: Soju, makgeolli, Hite beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Water, coffee, iced tea
Food: Globefish soup, watermelon, pig intestine, oyster, banchan, seafood, sea snails, peanuts, cake, tofu soup, dried squid
Drinking Scenes: 11
Creative People: Poets, film director, film critic, theatre actor, curator
Academia: Professors
Vacation: 3
Dream Sequences: 1
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 4
Family: Son-mother
Vehicle Scenes: 4
Crying Scenes: 6
Number of Shots: 89 + 37 stills
Number of Zooms: 35 out, 68 in
Music Style: Calm synth piano and strings, pensive piano
Title Background: Stills
Voiceover: 2

What helps distinguish Hong’s prolific career from those of, say, Koreeda Hirokazu, Johnnie To, or Miike Takashi is what his detractors would call laziness/repetitiveness and what his acolytes call a perceived effortlessness, a simplicity of means and production that yields endless variations. If I’m not mistaken, Hahaha, one of the greatest Hongs that didn’t play in the New York Film Festival, is the very first film produced solely by Jeonwonsa — the now familiar and totally charming logo of four people at play at last makes its debut here (edit: there’s a ball that doesn’t appear in the other iterations of the logo) — and the first one made under his similarly patented if insane working method: each day of shooting, he wakes up at 4 AM and writes the scenes and dialogue for the day; only the locations, the actors, the broad outlines of the characters, and maybe a minimal treatment are set beforehand, and after quick dialogue memorizations the scenes are filmed. Despite what might appear to be a complex structure, full of consideration for character movements and relationships, Hahaha feels beholden to this method on its first try in the best way possible: like many of Hong’s best films, it transforms, embodying so many of his predilections in a narrative that plays it both ways, propelling him into his middle period with one eye gazing back.

Fittingly, even though Hahaha features two male protagonists instead of the sole woman that comes to define his middle period films, it almost plays like an intertwining of two separate films with shared characters, each tackling different concerns with each man that come together harmoniously. Much of this tight-knit quality comes from the steady rhythm of only a few scenes at a time, carefully alternating between the two perspectives while making the chronological connections logical. I had forgotten that the only time that Moon-kyung and Joong-sik are actually in the same scene is the hilarious hanger beating from the former’s mother — it’s so weird to think a Hong actor has an Academy Award; Youn Yuh-jung’s brusque tenderness is put to great use in both this film and the middle period — while the latter is passed out in the backroom. Incidentally, Joong-sik might be the first Hong protagonist that’s especially vulnerable to alcohol; he gets hangovers multiple times, which happen in Hong’s films surprisingly rarely, considering the amount of alcohol ingested.

Instead, their links are established by the supporting characters and those oh-so-lovely black-and-white stills — potential references to Out 1 perhaps. Of course, they’re presented in a deliberately contrasting style from the main film: black-and-white freeze-frames versus color video. But it also evokes a certain sense of time standing still that Hong hasn’t necessarily explored much: by only capturing these fleeting moments of drinking, captured in voiceover that actually feels like dialogue in their little chuckles and clinking of makgeolli bowls, the sense of time is completely at sea. The viewer has no clue how much they’ve drunk or how long they’ve been talking, but is allowed to simply wonder and enjoy the company of these two friends. Their early intent to only talk about the pleasant parts of their vacations isn’t necessarily met, but this narrative existing on top of another narrative casts a nostalgic, almost wistful feeling over the whole proceedings, a warmth not really found in early Hong.

What Hahaha does otherwise, however, is both an elaboration and examination of little truisms espoused by Hong characters in the past, expanding it to essentially become a film about worldviews and how they affect relationships. Motifs recur: both men are caught outside Seong-ok’s door like Kim Sang-kyung in On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate — indeed, Moon-kyung is essentially the same character as Kim’s in that film and in Tale of Cinema — and there’s even a similar ferry ride; the bare apartment that Jeong-ho occupies weirdly reminds me of the end of The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. Moon-kyung’s sexual prowess seems to be a direct reference to his moves in On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate.

But the impetus for the film’s most fascinating concerns comes from none other than Jung Yu-mi’s character in Like You Know It All; while her full ascendancy to middle Hong icon hasn’t occurred yet, her monologue becomes the source of potential revelation for Moon-kyung, albeit delivered in an amazing dream sequence by Admiral Yi — played by Kim Yeong-ho, the lead of Night and Day. Whether through Jesus or through this 16th century hero of Tongyeong, the advice feels divinely inspired, the exhortation to only look at the good things in life handed down to people awestruck by the experience.

Of course, in Hong’s world things are never so simple, and in a near-miraculous transference the sentiment seems to pass from Moon-kyung to Joong-sik — who had previously been talking about cowardice and struggling with commitment — during the latter’s acupuncture, albeit with a twist: the general command to look at things differently is refined to occupy one person’s perspective: Yeon-joo, who has a happier outcome than her role as the first lover in On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate. This reframing might also be connected to the structure of the film; even more than most Hong films, each scene is presented as explicitly the point of view of its protagonist, without the counterbalancing of something like Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. While some moments are hilarious in the way that the storyteller doesn’t seem to understand how he might be viewed — Moon-kyung following Seong-ok to her house, the unpleasant encounter with the beggar — there’s generally a greater affection for the characters that, while still carrying no small amount of satire, doesn’t come close to the repeated failures of Kyeong-nam in Like You Know It All.

The love hexagon that seems to develop in Hahaha — even though Joong-sik and Yeon-joo don’t get entangled with anyone else despite the former’s eyeing of Jeong-hwa’s figure — is as absurd as anything Hong’s done yet, and, along with Moon-kyung’s mother and the curator, helps this to be his fullest portrait yet of a place, albeit that of Tongyeong as experienced by full-fledged summer vacationers. By virtue of all these chance encounters and recurring places, the town does truly feel small, one where couplings can arise without warning; I don’t think Jeong-ho and Jeong-hwa ever cross paths onscreen until they are seen entering the hotel together. The moment when a hotel door opens after Moon-kyung and Seong-ok enter the hotel and nobody emerges is even more well-timed than when Moon-kyung’s mother emerges and walks the other way just as the couple leaves.

Likewise, this is maybe the first Hong that truly delves into artistic sensibilities, aside from maybe a few scenes in Night and Day. The communal nature of poetry, an art that’s convenient to depict due to it being fairly short in audible form, is established early on, helping both to make Jeong-ho look more ridiculous in his youthful obsession and to capture some measure of growth on Moon-kyung and Joong-sik’s parts. It also gives Joong-sik and Jeong-ho the chance on multiple occasions to debate viewpoints — faux-existentialism vs. self-truth, sensitivity vs. insensitivity — in conversations that get across the nature of intellectual dialogue in a way no Hong film has truly tackled before. As a great counter-balance, there’s the women also sitting at the table; Hong uses them as a way to deflate what could be circular arguments, especially in how he zooms in to isolate them in the frame. On the flip side, Seong-ok’s speech — Moon So-ri is another of the great Hong regulars of this period, though I don’t quite recall her roles at the moment — almost plays like the historian’s version of Kyeong-nam’s passionate response in the Q&A in Like You Know It All, artistry/work as self-expression that should be vigorously protected.

Hahaha walks a fine line in maintaining an even tone (if not intent) and consistent characters without ever making it too obvious for one or the other man that they’ve been talking about the same people. It helps, of course, that Moon-kyung only ever encounters Jeong-ho at the latter’s most extreme levels of emotion — the ability to take a punch seems like an extension of the arm-wrestling in Night and Day and Like You Know It All, with Moon-kyung describing the onlookers’ awe (or perhaps pity) in a similar manner to the onlookers in those films. There’s a measure of compartmentalization that feels true to the way people live their lives: Seong-ok having an argument with Jeong-ho before going to work where she meets Moon-kyung; the two of them having a reasonable conversation after the rancor of the previous night.

While Moon-kyung is clearly the center of his story, remaining pretty focused on his courtship of Seong-ok while also incorporating his relationship with his mother and desire to see good in his deceased father, Joong-sik — in keeping with Yoo Jun-sang’s leading roles in Hong films to come — often comes across as an observer more than a participant, his relative fidelity to Yeon-joo (at the expense of his fidelity to his wife and family) leading him to be nominally overshadowed by Jeong-ho’s demonstrativeness, his depression and conspicuous attempts to cope the precise opposite of Moon-kyung’s brazen confidence and lack of self-awareness. It’s only when he’s alone or with her that he truly takes center stage, watermelon eating to rival Lee Kang-sheng; his rueful observation that you “can’t win with women” exists on a perfect seesaw with the expression on his face when he finds Yeon-joo in the blanket shop.

The emotional dynamics within scenes tend to be more stretched out, especially in the intellectual/artistic debates and the great confrontation between Moon-kyung and Seong-ok in the hotel lobby; the throwing down of grass calls to mind all manner of plants in Hong’s cinema, including the latter’s love of flowers. It also allows for more unexpected forms of transference, including the mother-son-like relationship that develops between Moon-kyung and Jeong-ho, the latter staying behind and essentially taking his place/hat/apartment. And the scene with Joong-sik’s uncle is handled so well, a cut covering so much drinking in order to cast away cowardice; the theater faux-soju drinking scene is reminiscent of the one in Tale of Cinema, and also probably isn’t too far off from how Hong handles his scenes.

It really is perfect how well Hahaha reflects this moment of transition for Hong, where the supposedly subordinate or less assertive storyline slowly becomes the one that triumphs over the more identifiably early period narrative. Yoo, of course, will appear in many Hongs to come, and his tender commitments to Yeon-joo on that bus to close out the film without a visual return to the friends almost plays as a response to the numerous scenes of anguish on buses in the earliest Hong films. Kim, on the other hand, makes his last Hong appearance here; his declarations of purity ultimately come to naught, foiled by fate and preexisting connections, and Tongyeong returns to its previous state — Jeong-ho’s apparent rejection of Jeong-hwa in favor of reconnecting with Seong-ok completes the circle of its own side narrative as Moral Tale. While Kim’s heard in the closing moments, he’s last seen on the ferry from behind, gazing into the water. After the film he’s presumably off to experience Canada; maybe he’s still living out there in Hong’s multiverse.

The globefish soup that’s remarked upon and consumed so often in Hahaha provides a handy metaphor for what makes this Hong film so special for me. While it’s specifically mentioned as Moon-kyung’s mother’s restaurant’s staple, the two men seem to automatically assume that they ate at different places and met with different people. The perspective of Hong films before has been of one person, caught in their own repetitions; of course this film has some in its recurring motifs of poem writing and reuse of restaurants and places. But starting here and going forward, the perspective is becoming more universal and able to capture the “infinite worlds possible,” yet at the same time Hahaha casts Tongyeong as a kind of sandbox and area of exploration. The play of perspectives and self-realizations with the same figures and places is such a joy to watch, even if the men can’t see it; even self-enlightenment doesn’t mean you can know it all.

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