Among the slightest of Hong Sangsoo’s films is this story about two men recalling their recent trips to a small town. The movie is narrated by each in turn, we see them in black and white still photos as they drink toasts between anecdotes. The twist is that they were both in town at the same time, and though they’re often interacting with the same people in the same places, they never actually meet, nor do they recognize the people they have in common from each other’s anecdotes, a particularly extreme example of the Hongian man’s tendency to occupy only his own headspace. Other than this framing device, the story is almost entirely linear, as the two stories lineup more or less precisely. One man, a director named Moonkyung (Kim Sangkyung, the lead actor in Tale of Cinema and Turning Gate), is in town to visit his mom one last time before he moves to Canada. The other, Joongsik (Yoo Junsang), is a professor and film critic on vacation from his wife with his girlfriend, played by Ye Jiwon. The director’s mother owns a fish restaurant where everyone hangs out on multiple occasions, although, again, they never meet (one time the two friends are actually there at the same time, but Joongsik has passed out drunk and so doesn’t see Moonkyung).
The primary narrative follows Moonkyung as he pursues a kooky tour guide, Seongok, played by Moon Sori (she was the pregnant wife in In Another Country and the café owner in Hill of Freedom), who is the on-again, off-again girlfriend of a poet, who in turn is a friend of Joongsik. Seongok is the liveliest presence in the film by far, her reaction to discovering that the poet has been cheating on her (insisting that he let her give him a piggyback ride) is the film’s best scene. But there are other inspired moments, including Moonkyung’s conversation with the spirit of a famous admiral, who gives him important life advice. In all it’s one of Hong’s funniest films, building on the outright comedic spirit of Like You Know It All, although, like all Hong comedies, there’s an underlying current of melancholy, if not outright desperation.
Hahaha is a kind of a turning point in Hong’s work, as evidenced by the two leads: Kim Sangkyung has yet to appear in another Hong film, while Yoo Junsang remains an essential figure, though more often as a memorable supporting presence (In Another Country, Right Now Wrong Then, Yourself and Yours) than as the lead (The Day He Arrives). The fates of the characters too represent a kind of split in Hong’s career: the director is a sad sack, awkward in his environment and ultimately unable to be happy, he ends up alone. The critic, though, comes to a kind of resolution with his own issues (he suffers from depression) and resolves to be with the woman he loves (his girlfriend) despite the obstacles in his way (his wife). He ends happily, on the train home with the woman, and the couple will reappear a few years down the line in a dream in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, still together, still happy (and still on his depression medication).
Important as well is the fact that the doubling of the romantic interest occurs not to the woman, but with the man. The director and the poet are conflated by both the director’s mother and by the tour guide, in everything from a red baseball cap, to an apartment, to their past military service. Rather than the man encountering different versions of his romantic interest in discrete halves of the film (as in Turning Gate and Woman on the Beach) it is the woman who always seems to be dating variations on the same man, which will become the dominant structure of the next series of Hong’s films, especially the ones starring Jung Yumi (Oki’s Movie and Our Sunhi). In In Another Country, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, On the Beach at Night Alone, and especially Yourself and Yours, the woman will even begin doubling (and tripling) herself.