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Hong Sang Soo, Korean writer director of acclaimed indie films “Tale of Cinema” and “Woman on the Beach” returns with “HaHaHa”, another offbeat look at modern life, following a conversation between two friends as they reminisce about an unknowingly shared holiday. Although still instantly recognisable as being in Hong’s trademark structured style, the film is a markedly lighter and more naturalistic piece of work, making it far more accessible for the average viewer. This different approach proved successful, with the film bringing home the coveted top prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, a remarkable achievement for such an unassuming lo-fi Korean production.
The film basically revolves around two men, sitting at an outdoor bar and drinking rice wine while trading memories about past trips to the picturesque port town of Tongyeong, told in flashback and with them taking a sip and toasting each other whenever they remember something pleasant. However, as their conversation progresses, it becomes clear to the viewer, if not to the two of them, that both film critic Bang Jung Shik (Yoo Joon Sang, recently also in “Moss”) and would-be film maker and professor Moon Kyeong (Kim Sang Kyung, “Memories of Murder”) were actually there at the same time, and that their various relationships with different friends and women were part of a bigger, intertwining picture.
“HaHaHa” (the word ‘Ha’ referring to the Korean word for summer) does have a great deal in common with Hong Sang Soo’s other films, essentially revolving around neurotic males, and dealing with issues of ego, truth and memory in carefully structured fashion. However, whilst “Tale of Cinema”, for example featured a sudden shift that divided the film into separate sections, here Hong takes a more naturalistic approach, and though the memories of the friends are set out by the two taking turns and following on from each other to provide the other side of the story, the film feels playful and less forced than might have been expected, with a pleasingly rhythmic charm. This works very well, and the film does have the relaxed and convivial mood of a drinking session. On the many instances when the words of the men and what they tell each other diverges from what actually happened, it comes across as being amusing rather than cynical. The film is frequently very funny, playing gently upon the many mistakes and misconceptions of its protagonists, and though there is a definite sense of wry irony, it is never cruel or cheap in raising a laugh.
Although it does meander and is by definition unfocused and rambling, the film remains engaging and utterly amiable throughout, with its lack of forced drama giving it a grounded and believable air. The plot is quite clever and multilayered in its own way, and manages to work in a great many twists, as Moon Kyeong pursues a woman who is dating Bang’s poet friend, who in turn is also in a relationship with a friend of his mother’s. This may sound fairly complex, though Hong’s light touch ensures that it all keeps just on the right side of daft farce, and the film never relies too much upon coincidence or artificially awkward situations.
With Bang being married whilst carrying on an affair with a woman who comes to visit him in the town, and with his poet friend’s many different liaisons, the film does touch on some potentially searching moral ground, though Hong is never judgemental, and by having the events unfold from each character’s own memories, he allows the viewer to decide whether or not the protagonists are likeable buffoons or self-deluding cads. Given the film’s blithe atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine anyone being too hard on them, as the two are basically likeable despite their many faults and flaws, and their womanizing and wondering about their lives becomes almost like an existential quest for meaning and fulfilment.
This in itself is of course open to interpretation, and “HaHaHa” is certainly a film which can be enjoyed on many different levels, either as a philosophical piece about the male psyche and relationships, or simply as an intuitive and comic tale of possibly innocent mis-remembrance and ineptly childish behaviour. Whichever is the case, the film is arguably Hong Sang Soo’s most entertaining and unpretentious work to date, and certainly the one which is most likely to be enjoyed by non art house viewers.
Sang-soo Hong (director) / Sang-soo Hong (screenplay)
CAST: So-ri Moon … Wang Seong-ok
Sang-kyung Kim … Jo Moon-kyeong
Ju-bong Gi … Tong-yeong
Kang-woo Kim … Kang Jeong-ho
Min-sun Kim … No Jeong-hwa
Jun-Sang Yu … Bang Joong-sik
Ji-won Ye … Ahn Yeon-joo