Laughter in the Sun

While stars and movie critics were dancing Night and Day away in Cannes, I went to a place called “Momo”, located on the campus of Ewha Womans University, down a long glassy trench. Together with a friend from Berlin I watched the new film by HONG Sangsoo (홍상수):

Hahaha — 하하하 — 夏夏夏

According to the production notes, the meaning of this seemingly straight-forward title is in fact three-fold… First: summer (여름), the season the movie is set in: “beautiful nature’s (ten)thousand changes” (千變萬化). Second: a sight of admiration (감탄의 탄성) for the actors. Third: the sound of laughter (웃음의 소리).

I did not understand too much of the talking (e.g. I completely misinterpreted this scene) and the recurring sleepiness common to early summer afternoons sometimes crept in, but apart from that—maybe because of it—I spent a great two hours.

One reason for my cozy joy in this dark place, the cave of shadows gone lose, might have been that Hong, unlike some other Korean cinematographer’s of international fame—e.g. PARK Chan-wook (박찬욱) or KIM Ki-duk (김기덕), both great director’s in their own terms—, does not dwell in mysterious worlds full of secret connections, symbolic relations, and parabolic encounters. Put another way: Hong offers things to look at, to chew on, and then, maybe, to make guesses about. So there is not much you necessarily need to decipher to have a good time.

More specifically, these are some of the things I like when watching a film by Hong Sang-soo:

1. I like the locations: the green hiking tracks of rural Kangwon-do (in The Power of Kangwon Province, 강원도의 힘); the melancholic seaviews of Sindu-ri at the West coast of Korea (in Woman on the Beach, 해변의 여인); and of course the cablecar ride up Namsan (in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, 오! 수정).

This may sound like promotional material offered by the Korean Tourist Organisation. However, Hong does not reduce the locations to a series of postcard-ish imagery (elsewhere I made this point for the Paris of “Night and Day”, aka 밤과낮). Instead, the places always remain subordinate to the events happening there.

Likewise Hahaha, set in the small seaport of Tongyeong in the Southern-most part of South Korea, certainly sparked my touristic longings. The film’s homepage even features a to-do-list for week-end tourists. Still, this is not so much the Tongyeong of local seafood dishes (although the protagonists repeatedly eat bokguk, a blowfish soup typically associated with the town) or the Tongyeong that served national war hero Yi Sun-shin, the Immortal Admiral, as a bastion (in fact Yi has a brief cameo, though I took him for an impersonator).

It is a Tongyeong where people meet, eat, have a drink, have sex, meet again (or maybe not), in varying order. It is a city of restaurants and motels, of backstreets and sea-side promenades, a town where people eventually run into each other.  It is thus a playground for interaction and emotional outbreaks as well as for culinary solitude. In other words: a series of places defined by what people make of them. Or, the Southern-most part of Hong-country.

2. I like the constellations: whether triangular, rectangular, or (as in Hahaha) like a seven-sided polyhedron, each face sharing several edges. Hahaha interweaves two trips down to the sea, two friends whose tracks are continuously on the verge of crossing. Later in Seoul they share some reminiscences over more than a few cups of makgeolli.

Drinking together, whether to remember or to forget, is a staple in Hong’s films. Here, presented in black-and-white stills, it makes the framework for the intertangling plotlines of six thirty-somethings and the divorced mother of one of them who runs a small restaurant in Tongyeong. The official trailer begins in the same way:

In fact, a slide show arranged by YU Jun-sang (유준상, a member of the production staff?) seems to fit the movie’s theme—crossing path(es)—better. Take a look

3. I like the repetitions: the fact that nothing happens only once. Hong’s characters walk in their own footsteps or in those of others—knowingly or only in the eyes of the spectator—, but they usually stumble. This principle of repetition and variation is put specifically into the spotlight in Tale of Cinema (극장전, see my review), where a film-in-the-film that makes the first half is re-enacted in the second.

Likewise, though a bit understated, in Hahaha the distinct feeling that all of this does not happen for the first time lingers over the blue ocean and the drops of liquor spilled. Maybe this is the supreme charm of Hong’s movie: My focus was put more on how things were down—or avoided, again—, rather than the underlying reasons, a perspective further enhanced by my ignorance of most dialogues.

Hong’s films are full of unknown connections, past relations and chance encounters, they just do not pass as very extraordinary. In Hahaha, I saw strong emotions that vaporated as they came, casual sex with brief moments of romance in-between, even a minute bursting of violence, something which could turn into a violent fight between jealous lovers any minute—but then it didnot.

Back in Cannes, Hahaha received a prize. Still whether it will hit cinemas outside of Korea is dubious (with the probable exception of France). Meanwhile, Hong has made yet another film, Oki’s Movie (옥희의 영화), which premiered in Venice today (from Sept. 16th in Korea). I am expecting nothing less than some beautiful mountain scenery, a backpack full of soju, and a love story that ends with a shoot out in front of high-rise apartment.

— 12 May 2010 (水)

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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One Response to Laughter in the Sun

  1. Pingback: The Mask Museum in Namhae | Seoul Stages

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