SPECIAL FEATURE: Film Review: Hahaha

Film: Hahaha
Running time: 115 mins
Director: Hang Sang-soo
Starring: Kim Sang-kyung, Moon So-ri, Kim Kang-woo, Gi Ju-bong, Kim Gyu-ri
Genre: Drama
Country: South Korea

This film will be screened at the Pan-Asia Film Festival, which begins today in London (7th March 2011). Find out more about this event by clicking here.

The Korean drama HaHaHa won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was also given an honorable mention at the LA AFI Film Festival, and will be a part of the 2011 Pan-Asia Film Festival. Written and directed by Hang Sang-soo, the Wall Street Journal’s Scene Asia named the piece as one of Asia’s most significant films of 2010.

Hong Sang-soo uses the framing device of two young men drinking together and swapping memories to tell two interwoven tales.

They take it in turns to tell a story about one of their visits to the seaside town they’ve met in, agreeing to only tell the good bits and to drink after every memory.

Unbeknownst to the drinkers, each memory they share interconnects with the other man’s story, even though they themselves never crossed paths…

The film is a very touching, honest portrayal of human life, along with all its coincidences and irony. It also takes a satirical look at people’s quests for enlightenment and life philosophies – one group of characters swear to only see the good in the world, blocking out the bad, whilst others seek truth through an adolescent grasp of existentialism. All attempt to express themselves through poetry – again, a philosophical way to deal with the realities of life. These themes run heavily throughout the narrative, and none lead anyone to enlightenment in the end. Instead, life is shown as haphazard, and we see what little sense it can make when you only know half the story.

Despite these themes, Hahaha is sweet and humorous in tone. People are calling it Hong Sang-soo’s most sensitive and sincere work, and for good reason. The acting and filming act hand in hand to create a sense of realism; the lines are all very naturally delivered, and scenes are played out in statically filmed extended shots. Dialogue is also very skillfully written, with no clever cinema lines – instead, the characters have awkward pauses, they repeat themselves, and talk as we do. What they convey, however, is often memorable or amusing, and pulls the audience in to feel deeply involved with these lives. Even the score is extremely sparse, so as not to distract from the authentic tone of the film and what little there is consists of very minimalist piano. The one distraction is that, because the cameras are usually so static, when they do pan or zoom it can come as a surprise. The zoom in particular is too fast and dramatic, standing out vividly from the usual stillness.

Again true to life, the protagonists are far from heroes. They are not terrible men, but they are unsympathetic. One, Jo Moon-kyeong (Kim Sang-kyung), is simultaneously a mother’s boy and yet is often unkind to his mother. The other, Kang Jeong-ho (Kim Kang-woo), is married with a child and having an affair. Because of their rose-tinted philosophy, and their agreement to only tell the good parts of their stories, it is a while after the audience learns about this affair before any of the characters address it. Instead, his wife is mentioned in one scene, and then a girlfriend is mentioned in other. The two men just laugh and drink, not acknowledging anything bad about this. They do this after every story, be it good or bad, making the title very apt. It starts to dawn on the audience that we need to read between the lines of what the narrators are telling each other.

Directly after the affair is first revealed, the script confirms our thoughts with the words of a man on a museum tour, as he points out that historical heroes are often painted as much greater men then they in fact were. The tour guide, Jo Moon-kyeong’s love interest, loses her cool and gives a blindly loyal, emphatic rant at him about how the hero in question, Admiral Yi, was completely perfect. This is a sudden, shocking change to the previously calm and whimsical tone, sharply highlighting the theme that will continue, and instantly painting it as an unhealthy point of view. Wang Seong-ok is usually such a sweet character, which makes her rant all the more shocking. Later on, we witness bad events whilst hearing the men describe them in a positive light. This shows how flawed the philosophy that characters cling to is.

An interesting choice of Sang-soo’s was to separate the framing devise by showing the men drinking together in still black-and-white photographs. This separates the present from the stories they tell, which use a pallet of pale washed out colours, except for frequent splashes of orange and blue. These light and bright colours reflect the optimistic nature of the story-tellers, and remind us that they aren’t the whole truth. Interestingly, the worse the situations get, the more these colours are prominent, whilst the truest, best moments are all in white.

It’s fun to marvel at just how many interconnections between the men’s lives there are, which keeps the audience engaged. One let down is that you never get to see the men realise this themselves. After spending the entire movie awaiting their reaction, it never comes. We also never see the full completion of one of their plot lines. As the men say, “never show the bad things.”

A large part of the narrators’ dismissal of their problems is in their belittlement of women. At first, this only comes across in innocent comments about women’s legs, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that they give women very little thought, especially Jeong-ho. They both describe their women as “cute” whenever they have a legitimate question or concern.

The women themselves are all very likable characters. Yoon Yeo-jeong gives a highly entertaining performance as the independent old mother who adopts every young person she befriends as an honorary child. Moon So-ri, who plays Wang Seong-ok, also delivers a strong performance as a girl who is both sweet and optimistic, whilst constantly disappointed by men. In a strange and memorable scene, she insists on giving her ex-boyfriend a piggyback in order to break up with him. The symbol doesn’t translate easily to an English audience, but is potentially a reversal of the South Korean wedding tradition where the groom gives piggybacks to his bride and mother-in-law. He does this to symbolize his responsibility towards them, so for the woman to give her man a piggyback, she is taking obligation towards her away from him.

Hahaha is a gentle, slow paced film that is full of ideas and a delight to watch. It is a film that is both charming to watch and will be a lasting point of discussion when it has finished. The film is well deserving of the attention is has been receiving. AIB

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