Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 6: HaHaHa

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival is still going strong. It runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and review of a film in the festival.

HaHaHa (SOUTH KOREA: Hong Sang-soo, 2010)

playing: 3:30 this afternoon at the Kabuki, with no more scheduled festival screenings.
distribution: None that I'm aware of. This may be your last chance to see this film on the big screen.

"Stop dwelling on adolescent things." It's a scolding given by one of the men in HaHaHa to the woman he's infatuated with, but it could as easily be applied to just about any male character in any Hong Sang-soo film. Invariably Hong populates his movies with creative, would-be "sensitive" guys trapped in states of arrested development. Unable to live up to their own high ideals, these protagonists verbally inflict on the women around them countless cutting comments, subtextual rejections, insincere flatteries and transparent lies. When the women stand for such treatment it's only because they're no less insecure than their male counterparts, even if they may express it differently.

HaHaHa provides more opportunities for its Peter Pans to be put in their pre-adolescent place than any other Hong film I can remember (and I'm lucky to have seen all twelve of his thus-far finished works). The mother of laid-off Seoul prof. Moon-kyoeng (played by Kim Sang-kyeung, who also played the male lead in Turning Gate) infantilizes him in conversation with her friends: "He's gotten so big; I wonder if he's really mine." Later in the film she gives him a spanking with a coat hanger, and makes him cry (these are separate instances).

Another male character, an angsty poet, gets a piggyback ride from his girlfriend as if to demonstrate his immaturity after she catches him with another woman. The girlfriend is Seung-ok, played by Moon So-ri, who SFIFF regulars will remember from her terrific turns in Peppermint Candy, Oasis and Sa-Kwa. This is her first time working with Hong Sang-soo and she commands attention in every scene, not least her outburst while on-duty as a historical park guide who defensively shouts down a tourist who dares to question the accuracy of the heroic histories she's there to impart.

Hong is always motivated to explore the elusiveness of absolute truth, and as usual he does this by dividing HaHaHa into two complimentary (or perhaps competing) stories: a recounting by Moon-kyoeng of the highlights of his seaside hometown visit, and a parallel recounting by his friend Joong-sik, who coincidentally was visiting the same town with his mistress at the same time. Only the audience gets to see just how close the two men came to bumping into each other, as they frequented the same locations, often with some of the same locals alongside them. Along with the dialogue, these close calls provide much of the humor that helps earn the film its title.

What makes HaHaHa different from any other Hong feature is the typical bifurcation is not a temporal cleave between the first and second halves of the film. Rather, Moon-kyoeng's and Joong-sik's stories are alternated and interwoven throughout the running time. This "normalizes" the film somewhat, which may be why it's the first of Hong's films to have energized a few former detractors I'm spoken to. As a devotee, I find this new approach refreshing and intriguing as well.

When writing about Hong's other 2010 release Oki's Movie (which comes to YBCA June 23 & 26, incidentally), Marc Raymond suggested that "perhaps no other director is less repetitive than Hong," which on the face sounds like an even more perverse provocation than Hasumi Shigehiko's (via Max Tessier) that Yasujiro Ozu is the "least Japanese of all directors." But there's truth in both claims. Perhaps HaHaHa and Oki's Movie (also an obvious structural departure from Hong's usual template) will help observers (including fans such as myself) better see how to distinguish all of Hong's films from each other, despite their surface similarities.

SFIFF54 Day 6
Another option: Chantrapas (GEORGIA/FRANCE: Otar Iosseliani, 2010) In contrast to Hong, I've only seen one of Septuagenarian filmmaker Otar Iosseliani's films, the delightfully Tati-esque Monday Morning, but it's not the fault of the SFIFF that I haven't seen more. They've shown ten of his films over the past thirty years, and this year's US Premiere screening of Chantrapas serves as a tribute to SF Film Society board chair George Gund III, who is a particular fan of the Georgian director, who is expected to be in attendance for tonight's 6PM screening.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: Valley Girl at the Red Vic in a 35mm print. I've never seen this flashback from 1983, which was a breakthrough for both director Martha Coolidge and star Nicolas Cage, and begins a two-night stand at a theatre that got its start in the 1980s.

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