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April 01, 2011


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Hong Sang-soo - 2010
United Entertainment Korea Region 3 DVD

Two friends get together for a final get together before one leaves Korea for Canada. They soon discover that both were in the port city of Tongyeong. Leisurely eating and drinking, the two man exchange stories about their time there, unaware that their paths indirectly crossed, and that their stories involve the same group of people.

Hong Sang-soo's film is as casual, letting things gradual unfold or occasionally double back. If the film is about anything, it is about how awkward relationships are, whether between family members, lovers, even friends. More often than not, people unintentionally say the wrong thing to each other, and usually it's the men who put their respective feet in their mouths talking to the women they are with at the moment. With its title, Hahaha creates the expectation that one will be watching a comedy, and the film is a comedy, but not in the traditional sense. Hong's film is more quiet, more gentle, about the recognition of human foibles in others and perhaps ourselves.

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One of the central locations is the little restaurant run by Yun Yeo-jeong. Yun might be best known now for her role in the recent The Housemaid. Yun's character doesn't have a name in this film, and plays the mother of one of the two friends, Mun-gyeong. As uncomfortable as mother and son seem to be during their final meetings before Mun-gyeong's departure, the mother is more than ready to adopt some of the other younger people she meets, urging them to call her "Mom". The one time mother and son seem to truly bond is during a scene of corporal punishment which brings out a sense of nostalgia in Mun-gyeong.

Hahaha one the prize at Cannes last year for Un Certain Regard, and in spirit, this is a French film even it was made by Korean talent. I don't think it inappropriate to compare this to films by Eric Rohmer, something like Boyfriends and Girlfriends. In a Rohmer film, people bond over literature and philosophy while in Hong's film, people get together to eat and drink, frequently large quantities of alcohol, with the periodic cup of coffee. Unlike Rohmer's films where the "right" people seem to find each other, Hong's film is more open ended. In the New Yorker, Richard Brody compares Hong to Joseph Mankiewicz, and A Letter to Three Wives, as films about men, women and memory. The comparison has some validity, although in a Mankiewicz film, the characters often exchange the piercing bon mot, while in Hong's film, Mun-gyeong finds himself trying to undo the damage when telling his would be girlfriend that she looks like a chubby rabbit.

In a recent interview, Hong stated: "The important thing for me is to discover the small things in daily life. This motivates me the most, it is what gives me the courage to live." This may also explain why, in spite of the critical acclaim over the years, why Hong remains less known than some of his peers. Hong is not working within the framework of a recognizable genre, nor are the films plot driven. Darcy Paquet wrote an overview on Hong's career about four years ago that doesn't need much revision. Hahaha is a film comprised of many small things, small dogs, small flowers, and sometimes small talk. The seeming simplicity of the film belies a more rigorous narrative and visual structure. At this time, Hong's films haven't generated the kind of interest to support art house screenings or stateside DVD releases, a loss for all but the more dedicated or curious cineaste. Definitely Hong Sang-soo is worthy of more than simply a certain regard.

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Posted by peter at April 1, 2011 08:33 AM