Yourself and Yours isn’t the latest film from South Korean director Hong Sangsoo, that would be On the Beach at Night Alone, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Berlin Film Festival (where it picked up a Best Actress award). But, Yourself and Yours may still get a North American release, after all, Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then played here last summer, almost a year after its festival premiere in 2015. It’s probable that if it does, it won’t be until after another new Hong movie plays the Cannes Film Festival, as his Claire’s Camera is rumored to be finished by that time. With a director this prolific (since taking a year off in 2007, Hong has directed thirteen feature films in ten years) it’s easy for a film here or there to get lost in the mix, especially given the lethargic pace at which films today move from the festival circuit to the theatrical art house. The system simply isn’t designed, at present, for a director who releases a new film every nine months. This isn’t unique to Hong (the similarly prolific Johnnie To has had equally haphazard distribution) nor is it unique to the present (take a look sometime at the distribution schedule of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960s period). But don’t let these institutional vagaries obscure the fact that Hong is in the midst of one of the great cinematic winning streaks, a frenetic burst of creative energy that comes along only a few times in a generation. And Yourself and Yours, seemingly already forgotten though it premiered just six months ago, epitomizes the greatness of that streak as well as anything.
It opens with two men talking together in an art studio/apartment. Yeongsoo’s mother has been ill and may be dying, and his friend is expressing sympathy, but the conversation quickly turns to Yeongsoo’s girlfriend, Minjeong, who everyone agrees drinks too much. The friend tells Yeongsoo that some other friends saw her drinking and fighting with some guy at the local bar. Yeongsoo initially refuses to believe it but ultimately comes around. Two scenes later, he confronts Minjeong with the accusation, which she categorically denies. The two fight in a argument as raw, vitriolic, and humorless as anything Hong has directed in years, and eventually she storms out. But in the scene in-between these two, something weird happens: Minjeong is reading at a coffee shop when she is approached by an older man with a collapsible bicycle who claims that he knows her. She denies that she is Minjeong, or that she’s ever heard the name, and insists she’s never met the man. After much persistence she admits that she is Minjeong’s twin sister (we'll call her "Minjeong2") and begins chatting with the guy. Then we cut to the big fight, where, notably, the actress playing Minjeong (Lee Yooyoung) is wearing the same clothes as her “twin”.
Sometime later, maybe the next day, maybe not, Yeongsoo, regretting his fight, tries to track Minjeong down at her house but she has seemingly disappeared. Instead, we see Minjeong2 on a date with the older man. Yeongsoo is despondent, when his friends try to cheer him up he insists that they don’t understand love the way he and Minjeong do, that she is innocent, honest, and odd. The next day, Minjeong2 cheerfully tells the older man that she doesn’t wish to see him anymore and wanders off, but is quickly recognized at the coffee shop by another man, a film director played by Hong regular Yoo Junsang. He says they met and drank together at a publishing party some years before, but she once again denies everything. Neither one mentions her name, and there’s no discussion of whether or not she is a twin. The next day, the two go out for drinks (at the same neighborhood bar she always drinks at, in front of Yeongsoo’s friends whom she resolutely ignores, as though she doesn’t know them, which maybe she doesn’t), where he lavishes upon her the same compliments the older man did. But when the older man shows up, she denies knowing him. He gets angry and insists they know each other, the director defends her, but then the two men recognize each other: they went to middle school together. She wanders off while they reminisce about their youth. Yeongsoo then finds Minjeong (or Minjeong2) hunched down in an alley, crying, and takes her home, though she insists they’ve never met. He doesn’t care: he loves her. Some hours later they chat in bed and then fall asleep. Yeongsoo wakes up alone, and we fear their reconciliation was just a dream (he twice before had visions of Minjeong taking him back), but no, she comes back to bed bearing refreshing chunks of watermelon.
So here we have a simple story (boy and girl fight, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back) complicated by an ingenious twist (how many Minjeongs are there?), which is the kind of thing Hong’s been doing for a decade with dreams (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Night and Day, Like You Know it All, On the Beach at Night Alone), film scripts and films (In Another Country, Oki’s Movie), unexplainable temporal warps (The Day He Arrives, Right Now, Wrong Then), and jumbled letters and anecdotes (Hill of Freedom, Hahaha). Of all the recent films, however, the one Yourself and Yours most reminds me of doesn’t (it seems) employ any of those devices, and that is 2013’s Our Sunhi. Sunhi is a former film student who after some time mysteriously away, returns to her school to ask a former professor for a letter of recommendation to a school in the US. Over the course of the film, she meets with three men, all of whom express their love for her in exactly the same generic terms: she is innocent, honest, brave, with strong artistic sense, and is the prettiest girl they’ve ever seen. Minjeong is described in much the same terms, but where Sunhi seems skeptical of and annoyed by the bland admiration, she genuinely seems interested in at least two of the men (though that may be a front: one is the professor she needs the recommendation from, the other is a slightly older student whom she gets drunk with and thinks is very pretty), Minjeong simply refuses to deal with men who see her only in such abstract terms, who refuse to see her as she specifically is. Yeongsoo’s problem is that if he sees her as “Innocence” then any time she does something wrong, she’s betraying his abstract idealization. But if he simply sees her as herself, then he can accept and love her regardless of what she does. Our Sunhi is a kind of screwball comedy, with a flustered Sunhi juggling the demands of oblivious men driven by their basest urges while trying to satisfying her own ends (school, drinking, fried chicken, and sex, but not necessarily in that order), ultimately leaving them behind, bewildered. But Yourself and Yours is pure romance, a woman going to bizarre and baffling lengths to get the man she wants, as much The Lady Eve or A Woman is a Woman as That Obscure Object of Desire.
Or maybe it isn’t. The fascinating result of Hong’s refusal to tip his hand in his narrative game-playing (the style is always the same: scenes plays out in realist long takes punctuated only by an occasional quick zoom) is that we don’t ever really know what in his work is “real” or not. Perhaps there really are multiple Minjeongs. Perhaps she really does have a twin. Maybe there’s no Minjeong at all. Maybe her flirting with the older man and the director are events from the past, perhaps they’re Yeongsoo’s imagining of what she had been up to, or would be up to if he wasn’t around. And what happened to Yeongsoo’s foot? For the rest of the film after she leaves him, he hobbles around on crutches, a physical manifestation of the loss of the woman he loves? If so, is the one-eyed woman he meets at the bar, perhaps herself suffering such a loss, his true soulmate, whom he rejects in favor of his phantom ideal? Is the ending even happy, or has Yeongsoo retreated into a delusion, refusing to believe the evidence of his senses for the sake of the love of a potentially dangerously unstable woman? It’s impossible to know the answer to these and many more questions; Hong’s films are fundamentally irresolvable, which makes them endlessly fascinating, as much fun to think about and discuss as they are to watch and rewatch. “These are very simple pieces, but if you go deeper, they are more complicated,” says the composer in On the Beach at Night Alone. Minjeong says, “Knowing is not as important as we think.”
Added January 24, 2018:
There’s a moment at the end, after the lovers have been reunited because the man, the first Hongian man to realize this, has decided to see the woman he loves for what she actually is rather than what he imagines she should be, to see her and not an idea, where, freshly in love, they decided to take a brief nap. The camera slides down to look at a lit candle on the floor, perched in a paper cup terrifyingly close to a tall stack of books. A gentle dissolve shows time pass and the camera slides back up to the man as he wakes up, alone. Two decades and more than twenty Hong features, as well as two other instances in this very film, have taught us that what just happened was a dream, a wish fulfilled before reality leaves the man utterly desolate and alone. And then, a miracle: the woman walks back into bed, bearing a package of watermelon for the couple to share. Not as sweet as honeydew, but much more refreshing.