Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New Film: Ha Ha Ha

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

In Ha Ha Ha (2010), recipient of this year's Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes, leading Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo substantially modifies the "twice-told" narrative format that he inaugurated in his masterful second feature The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), transforming his signature two-part structures into a series of alternating inter-cut episodes narrated by a pair of conversing friends.  Ha Ha Ha accordingly represents 2010's second high-profile abandonment of one of the key trends in early twenty-first century world cinema, joining Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010): the Structuralist-inspired narrative diptych.  While Apichatpong's relinquishment facilitated the Thai director's epic return to his "exquisite corpse," Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) narrative origins, Hong's eschewal, by comparison, suggests a path forward for the Korean filmmaker.  Or at least Hong's capacity to make an old subject new.  In this regard, Hong remains ever the Structuralist; his oeuvre, taking its cue from Eric Rohmer's, may just be the cinema's closest equivalent to Piet Mondrian, with Ha Ha Ha thereby representing something akin to the painter's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" (1942-1943), though this writer is most certainly not suggesting that Hong has reached his artistic endpoint.

Ha Ha Ha opens with a series of black-and-white stills, where the viewer hears two men speaking in voice-off.  As the film progresses, their conversation, to which Hong repeatedly returns, utilizing the same black-and-white still motif - Hong's strategy feels like the latest of the director's increasing set of Gallic references; in this case to Chris Marker's sub-thirty minute masterpiece, La Jetée (1962) - becomes the impetus for the film's narrative, with incidents from the lives of each in the same coastal Korean town alternating in succession. Though it is not at first clear as to when these two stories are occurring in relation to one another, the film's progression confirms their overlap, not only temporally, but also, and more importantly, in terms of those figures that populate the two comic narratives.

In particular it is leggy tour guide Seong-ok (Moon So-ri) who proves pivotal to both story-lines, as the girlfriend of handsome poet Jeong-ho (Kim Kang-woo)a friend of the "severely" depressed first narrator Joong-sik (Yu Jun-Sang), and as the love interest of his conversant, Jo Moon-kyeong (Kim Sang-kyung), a relatively infantile out-of-work film director from Seoul.  As Ha Ha Ha proceeds, potential romantic rivals Jeong-ho and Moon-kyeong cross paths, first outside Seong-ok's door; then on the street where Seong-ok unexpectedly offers her (by this point) ex-lover a piggy-back ride - which she administers in her high heels to disastrous results; and finally after a play where Jeong-ho executes a beating to the supposed former member of a South Korean airborne division.  Joong-sik and Jo, however, fail to meet, despite their shared network of friends, and even though, on at least one occasion, both find themselves concurrently in Jo's mother's restaurant.  Ha Ha Ha choreographs the experience of lives lived in parallel, which fail to intersect.

Ultimately, though, it is the portraits of Seong-ok and Jeong-ho sketched by Hong's overlapping stories that provides Ha Ha Ha with its substantial auteurist interest.  While the writer-director's 'twice-told tales' (as for example Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, 2000) introduce a comparatively novel form of subjectivity in their two presumably objective views on a single series of events, Ha Ha Ha proffers its fuller view through its twinned subjectivities, unfolding in stories whose overlap the two narrators fail to see.  Indeed, it remains to be said that neither Moon-kyeong nor Joong-sik realize that the other is speaking of their mutual acquaintances, Seong-ok and Jeong-ho, as they causally take turns relating their experiences in voice-over and on-screen.  All of this is to say that Hong persists in showing two views, even as he dispatches with his former two-part structure.

Ha Ha Ha however does not simply prove exceptional within Hong's oeuvre for its introduction of original narrative strategies, but instead also emerges as exceptionally notable for its consistently successful comedy and for the overall strength of the film's performances.  Of particular note is Moon So-ri, who combines a sexual appeal concentrated in her much commented upon legs, with a pronounced awkwardness, both in the manner in which she carries herself, and also in her sudden verbal outbursts.

Ha Ha Ha additionally represents a greater assurance in the zoom-lensed aesthetic that Hong has developed since A Tale of Cinema (2005).  In Ha Ha Ha, Hong seems to move past the somewhat more impressionistic application of the zoom figure in the director's archly French, comparatively lesser Night and Day (2008) - Hong's other recent break from the 'twice-told' pattern - adopting the strategy instead to degree that it serves his narrative. With Ha Ha Ha, Hong selects points of interest within his mise-en-scène and gracefully reframes within his single-take scenes.  In this respect, Hong has transformed his static one-shot set-ups - again of works such as The Power of Kangwon Province - no less than the narrative strategies of his 'twice-told tales.'  

My special thanks to Lisa K. Broad for her substantial insights included in this piece.  Ha Ha Ha is available on English-subtitled Region-3 DVD through YesAsia.

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