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The cinematic medium can make for a fascinating subject, especially in the hands of a director willing to explore it through personal insights. This is certainly the case with “Like You Know it All” from Hong Sang Soo, one of the current champions of the Korean independent film scene, whose previous works such as “Women on the Beach” and “Woman is the Future of Man” have offered fascinating and offbeat looks at modern life and relationships. This, his ninth feature, screened as part of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, and features a host of former collaborators including Kim Tae Woo, Ko Hyun Jung and Uhm Ji Won.
Aptly enough, the film’s protagonist Ku (Kim Tae Woo, who featured in both “Women on the Beach” and “Woman is the Future of Man”) is an independent film director who has long enjoyed the adoration of the critics without ever being able to produce a box office hit. Although he is invited to Jecheon to judge a local film festival, he ends up doing little more than drinking, upsetting women and ruining old friendships. After things go wrong, he heads off to another appointment on Jeju Island delivering a lecture to a class of college students for another acquaintance. Inevitably, it doesn’t take long for him to complicate matters, especially when he runs into an ex-girlfriend (Ko Hyun Jung, another “Women on the Beach” star), who now just happens to be married to his former mentor.
As with Hong’s other films, musings on love and relationships make up a lot of “Like You Know it All”, exploring Ku’s interaction with the various women who drift in and out of his life. This is handled in a subtle, frequently ambiguous manner, without ever offering any easy answers or trite conclusions. In the case of Ku, such concerns are clearly directly related to the question of his own identity and self worth, and the theme of finding a soul mate, and indeed exactly what that might mean, plays an important part. The film is very open in this respect, frankly discussing the role of sex in relationships between men and women, though again often leaving the viewer to make up their own mind as to the truth behind some of Ku’s encounters.
Thankfully, this does not mean that the film is emotionally distant, or deliberately obtuse in the manner of many other indie productions, and it is gently moving and affecting throughout, in a mature and adult, if unconventional way. This is largely down to the fact that Ku is a very likeable protagonist, despite his many flaws and the many, many mistakes he makes. Whether or not he is actually to blame for much of what happens is an important question, as he certainly seems to be blamed by everyone for the film’s myriad personal disasters – not least since he has a notable talent for saying and doing exactly the wrong thing at the perfect moment. His childlike enthusiasm and naivety are balanced by hints of an underlying bitterness, and aside from the film’s more personal aspects, it works wonderfully as a deconstruction and demystification of Ku as a film maker and his role in creating art.
Hong’s style is laidback and unobtrusive, but never dull or particularly meandering, and the film is completely engrossing. Although he entirely eschews unnecessary or forced drama, the plot does take some unexpected twists, and this helps to keep things moving along at a friendly pace. Again, the film echoes his previous works in that it basically follows a two act structure, with the first familiarising the viewer with Ku and in the process quite cleverly setting up certain expectations for the second act, generating dramatic tension as to whether he’ll make the same mistakes again. Far from being pretentious, the film is amiable throughout, and is amusing and whimsical, if not always in an overt fashion. Hong’s observations on life, and of course the film industry, are often very funny, and though at times cynical, are certainly honest. Drinking plays a huge part in this, as Ku wanders from drinking session to drinking session, spending most of the film drunk and slumping through screenings or waking up in unfamiliar beds. This also ties in quite neatly with the theme of taking responsibility for oneself, as again it’s debatable to what extent his drunken mishaps are his own fault.
There is certainly a lot going on in “Like You Know it All”, and it works on many levels, being amusing, thoughtful and on more basic terms, highly entertaining. Easily one of the best Korean independent productions of the year, it shows Hong continuing to be one of the few directors truly able to capture the complexities and absurdities of the human condition.
Sang-soo Hong (director) / Sang-soo Hong (screenplay)
CAST: Tae-woo Kim … Koo Gyung-nam
Ji-won Uhm … Kong Hyeon-hee
Hyun-jung Go … Ko Soon
Hyeong-jin Kong … Boo Sang-yong
Yu-mi Jeong … Yoo Shin