By Sean Gillane | The Playlist April 28, 2011 at 2:56AM
The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival is currently in full swing with 190 films from around the world. Featured amongst the international films at SFIFF is last year’s Un Certain Regard winner “Hahaha,” writer/director Hong Sang-soo’s (“Like You Know It All,” “Night and Day”) 10th feature film starring Kim Sangkyung (“A Tale of Cinema”) and Yu Junsang (“Wide Awake”), both alums of the director’s previous work.
In anticipation of his move to Canada, Jo Monkyung (Kim Sangkyung) meets his old friend Bang Jungshik (Yu Jungsang) for farewell drinks. We see the two men first in black-and-white stills drinking and laughing with their conversation dropped in as voiceover. They agree to limit their meeting to stories about their respective adventures in the seaside town of Tongyeong, promising to each other that they will be, “Sticking to the pleasant parts, a sip for a memory.” Unbeknownst to the men, it turns out that their stories share locations and characters that crossover and affect the other’s set of stories.
Monkyung is a hilarious manchild and supposed film director who fancies himself a womanizer, but whose personality is so awkward and obtuse that it’s clear this is a personal fantasy. When Jungshik questions Monkyung’s logic in including his first story -- revolving around a quick lunch at his mother’s restaurant -- as a pleasant memory worth mentioning, Monkyung simply explains, “I got to see Mom and had great food.” Jungshik is the smoother of the duo, but also plays a fool in the relationships for which Monkyung yearns. A married man, Jungshik finds himself in Tongyeong staying in a hotel with his mistress who has him oscillating between big grinned proclamations of love and retreating from any indication of real commitment. When not in the hotel room, Jungshik spends his time with his poet buddy whose girlfriend Wang Seongok (Moon Sori) turns out to be the target for Monkyung’s desire in his own stories, though the two never realize this is the case.
Sang-soo leans heavily on dramatic irony as the foundation for most of the humor in the film, investing a good chunk of the time in visual and spoken reminders that keep us in on the joke as well as serving as gags. For a little while, the circumstance connecting their stories (and the narrators’ obliviousness to those links) does accommodate an enjoyable comic nuance for the segments, but eventually turns tiresome. There are so many shared locations and plot redundancies that the joke loses steam leaving the focus on characters that fail to develop. That lack of character depth isn’t necessarily a sin in a comedy like this, in fact it’s where a lot of the laughs come from, but without some kind of real character arc to back up the waning humorous tone the film starts to drag.
As the drink count for Munkyung and Jungshik piles up, their stories start to seem increasingly outlandish indicating that we’re possibly dealing with a pair of unreliable drunken narrators. In one tale, Monkyung is praised as a champion in the sack to a degree that is so exaggerated for his character that it must be an embellishment. In other instances, however, we get a look at dialogue or sights in these segments that our narrators were not privy to, establishing a perspective pulled away from the narrators themselves and so towards honesty. There is consistency in the crossover of their stories as well, leaving no room for narrative shenanigans.
For the genre, Sang-soo shows admirable restraint in some ways. There are a number of worn paths to take in a film with characters unaware of their complex connections, but the director smartly precludes these sad trombone moments for the most part. Having the men realize they are telling a shared story and reflecting on the phenomenon would be a quick way to extrapolate some meaning out of their tales, but Sang-soo doesn’t seem interested in applying more significance to the events of the film than necessary. At one point Jungshik chides his poet friend for his overly serious work, saying,“You’re exaggerating. Fancying up your adolescent feelings with existentialism. Anyone can see through that.”
If “Hahaha” is a comedy for comedy’s sake, it runs out of gas awfully fast for its nearly two hour runtime. There are laughs that stand on their own apart from the story structure but too few to elevate the film above more than a collection of “pleasant memories.” [C+]
The San Francisco International Film festival continues through May 5th.