Hong Sang-soo's films—especially from 2006's Woman On The Beach onwards—are a series of variations on the same basic plotline. The subject is men being dishonest, both with themselves and their friends, about how they treat women (poorly). One of the men is invariably a film director of sorts (a broad category, encompassing established auteurs, professors, and struggling aspirants), and their garbled disclosures are coaxed along by ritualistically puffed cigarettes and rounds of heavy drinking. Passing out midway through the session for a power-nap or not coming home to sleep it off is a normal occurrence raising no concern, though the alcohol doesn't necessarily drag the truth out of people: it just makes them louder and throws off any sense of timing.
Out of these unlikely ingredients have come some of the funniest comedies of recent years. If 2004's Woman Is The Future Of Man was grimly amusing in a kind of Rules of Attraction way, Hong's subsequent films have lightened up a bit: men are no longer overtly mendacious, but honestly clueless, and the women often get the last word. Hence Woman On The Beach, with its title character's exultant solo run on the beach a closing statement of independence. Ditto another literal woman on the beach at the end of 2009's Like You Know It All, telling off the confused director protagonist: "Don't make this into a movie. Actually, I don't care if you do."
Less buoyant than Hong's recent work, HaHaHa's intricate structure has potential for door-slamming farce. Two old friends get together for drinks one afternoon: director Jo Myunkung (Kim Sang-kyung) is a director shortly headed for Canada, while his friend Bang Jungshik (Yu Jun-Sang) is largely preoccupied with his depression and ongoing affair. Both men realize they were recently in the port town of Tongyeong and start swapping stories about how they spent their summers, without ever realizing the many ripples both men caused in each other's lives without ever running into each other. In La Jetee black-and-white stills, their two stories and many "Cheers!" bookend the color narratives.
That joke's more sad than funny: Hong's traditional black humor is mostly in retreat. Less obliquely confounding than Oki's Movie, HaHaHa's most unexpected element is a dream sequence featuring Admiral Yi, the 16th-century naval commander and hero of Korean lore. Tongyeong was his hometown, and tour guide Seongok (Moon So-ri) delivers an angry speech in his defense when a tourist questions whether nostalgic nationalism hasn't given us an overly simplified version of the great man, her passionate response attributing to the admiral so many admirable traits no contemporary male could possibly live up to. Subsequently, Myunkung dreams of meeting the Admiral, who lectures him on how to live: see only the good in others and yourself.
It's a total system that seems to solve everything for this confused man, but—like a similar diagram of life as a triangle drawn by an overconfident film director in Woman On The Beach—it proves impossible to realize. Seongok's assertion that today's men literally couldn't live up to Yi's goodness is spot-on; it's as impossible a project as a total geometric model for living. Hong's men set the bar considerably lower ("Women just want to be acknowledged").
HaHaHa is "tender," in that it never pushes its characters to the breaking point: the closest all the talk about seeing only the good in others gets is an uneasy encounter with a homeless guy. The men argue about it when they see him from a restaurant window's safe vantage point, and about what else can be perceived outside of the man's external trappings; on the wharf, though, he's drunk and vaguely dangerous, his face smeared with dirt like a Kurosawa peasant extra. The point here may be that he, at least, is clear and honest about how dangerous he is.
Like Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Jia Zhangke, Hong works out the same preoccupations over and over in radically different forms; the casts overlap and the motifs proliferate in self-referential spirals. Insofar as Hong makes some of the consistently funniest, smartest and most incisive movies about relationship pathologies around, evaluating the strengths of each part of this maniacally productive stretch is pointless. Hong's films require cultish devotion (and reward it), but they're not dividing lines on the frontier of cinema like Pedro Costa, to be agitated for. In polemical times, that's as refreshing as the work itself.