By Justin Chang
A Jeonwonsa Film Co. production. (International sales: Finecut Co., Seoul.) Produced, directed, written by Hong Sang-soo.
With: Kim Tae-woo, Ko Hyun-jung, Uhm Ji-won.
The soju keeps on flowing -- and so does the talk -- in "Like You Know It All," another playful exercise in liquor-lubricated truthtelling from Hong Sang-soo, and arguably his most broadly amusing work yet. After his overextended Parisian detour last year with "Night and Day," the South Korean auteur is back on familiar geographical and comedic terrain with this two-part tale of a film director drawn into various awkward social and romantic configurations. Pic reps a tart treat for Hong's fans at festivals and in limited arthouse runs but is unlikely to score him a wider following.
As might be surmised from its impudent jab of a title, "Like You Know It All" neither achieves nor aims for the melancholy perfection of Hong's exquisite "Woman on the Beach" (2006); structurally, it feels like that film's slightly inebriated cousin -- looser, less elegant, possessed of a more overtly farcical sensibility. But like "Beach," it shows the writer-helmer's ongoing interest in making movies about artists, his eagerness to strip away their delusions and pretensions by subjecting them to rigorous comic scrutiny, primarily through their alternately flirtatious and tetchy exchanges with the opposite sex.
Korean male directors and the women they attempt to seduce have become Hong's targets of choice, adding a dimension of self-critique that has rarely been as consistently funny as it is here. The director in this case is Ku (Kim Tae-woo), a filmmaker of some repute but little commercial success, who arrives in the South Korean town of Jecheon during the summer to serve on the jury of the local film festival.
Hong is a well-traveled veteran of the fest circuit and he has a lot of fun at its expense here, eliciting easy laughs with shots of Ku snoring through screenings. But the effect is less to mock the festival scene than to expose Ku as a craven hypocrite, prone to flattering others excessively and making promises he has little intention of keeping.
The usual Hongian hijinks ensue as Ku hangs out with his colleagues; naturally, there will be enough booze, scorn and unplanned emotional disclosures to go around the table. The film's first half culminates in Ku's reunion with an old friend, who invites him back to his house to dine with him and his young wife. What transpires next remains entirely offscreen; suffice it to say that the night ends badly and the morning after is even worse.
The second half picks up 12 days later, as Ku heads to Jeju Island to speak to a film class, to yet more humiliating effect. After another round of drinks and philosophical bull sessions, Ku runs into an even older friend, a painter, with a beautiful wife many years his junior, Gosun (Ko Hyun-jung).
Rather than forming a single, integrated narrative, the film's two halves function as panels in a diptych, with countless points of narrative and thematic connection. In both instances, Ku receives a handwritten letter and initiates an exchange with a married woman that yields disastrous consequences. It's unclear how a movie with so many strategic symmetries doesn't wind up feeling pat and over-diagrammed, but in terms of both dialogue and pacing, there's a wonderful messiness to the film's leisurely, unpredictable rhythms.
Playing a woman with a hard-earned awareness of what she wants from a relationship, Ko is well matched with Kim. Latter essays one of Hong's less toxic male specimens but manages to be frequently exasperating nonetheless (though his pensive voiceover balances the equation a bit). Both actors also appeared in "Woman on the Beach," and their very different dynamic here raises the mind-tickling suggestion, for Hong acolytes, that the two films constitute a larger diptych themselves.
Visuals are of the helmer's usual unadorned style, mostly medium shots situated to include two or three actors in the frame, abetted by occasional pans and zooms. Jeong Yong-jin's score indulges from time to time in mildly Philip Glass-like repetitions.
.Camera (color), Kim Hoon-kwang; editor, Hahm Sung-won; music, Jeong Yong-jin; sound, Kim Mir. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight), May 16, 2009. Running time: 126 MIN.
By Daniel Kasman
Hong Sang-soo’s new film is not what I expected at all. His last three (Tale of Cinema, Woman on the Beach, and Night and Day) all seemed subtle but substantial evolutions of a filmmaker unjustly accused of making the same movie again and again. Each had a discreet look, setting, and cast, but Hong’s new film, Like You Know It All, is puzzling, a remarkably amorphous film that harkens back to the feel of Hong’s first two movies while continuing to blend his structuralist rhymes and repetitions of the story deeper, more mysteriously and tenuously into the texture of the movie.
Like You Know It All is bifurcated—of course—between a film director (Go Hyun-jung) visiting a festival as a guest judge and falling into drunken mishaps with the locals and a trip soon after the filmmaker takes to do a Q&A with a class of students where he experiences a more mature, streamlined version of the previous trip’s drama. So far, so Hong. Yet Go plays his character as the most polite and distanced of all of Hong’s frustrated intellectuals, so much so that it’s not until the final reel that he actually voices any frustration at all. He also keeps it in his pants, which is to say that the reckless abandon Hong’s heroes tend to awkwardly climax with after days and nights of wary estimation of everything around them is, here, minor. The encounters that serve that Rohmerian function of facing our hero with things in the world and people’s views of life so that he may set himself with or against them to define himself are haphazard and far less A-to-B as in the past. Instead, there is an onward, subtle, even barely detected and mysteriously provoked maturation of Go's film director throughout the film. This slyness in development is as continually rewarding as its sneakiness is unexpected.
Despite the self-reflexive story, the film never fully forms a specific identity as past Hong films have, like the many shots that start or end by panning or zooming to a blasé composition of nature. It exists, just so. Like You Know It All is provocative in this respect especially for Hong fans (and I would be curious to read a reaction to the film of someone unfamiliar with his work). Things seems to be to an even great degree than Night and Day’s episodic pathways through Paris and male desire in a state of constant, unstable flux. The wide, quite varied, and often very funny and erratically acted cast only makes the path more bumpy, more curious. What is going on in this film? Hong’s past work, up until Night and Day, tended to fold neatly in on itself. Not so here. Slant rhyming replaces the more diagrammatic plots of the past, and the Buñuelian surrealism of dreams, objects, and dangerous ellipses all fit so naturally into this film one might barely note the weirdness of it all. Like You Know It All is as quicksilver as a modest, slow, deadpan and very wayward drama can be. Every Hong film seems to point to the next, but this unexpected move towards something different, a new, more opaque sense of storytelling—and perhaps even an attempt at the mainstream—leaves one not knowing what to expect next.