Hahaha – the first Hong Sang-soo film I’ve enjoyed without trying

OK, it was the second time I had seen it. The first time, I had slept through it. But that was because I had been entering into the spirit rather too much by indulging in a drinking session of Hongian proportions beforehand.

The second time round, there was the anticipation of seeing the lead actress afterwards at the Q&A. And there was the fact that having spent a few days in Tongyeong last year, I’d be familiar with some of the locations.

Tongyeong’s Sebyeonggwan, claimed to be the third biggest building constructed in the Joseon dynasty

Yes, it was nice to see Tongyeong again. The main tourist spot where Moon So-ri is a guide is the Sebyeonggwan, the grand hall where the Korean southern naval command had its headquarters in the early 17th century; and just opposite is the Tongyeong City Museum where another of the scenes is shot. It was fun to be able to notice the continuity problems: whenever Moon So-ri leaves the tour group at the Sebyeonggwan, she heads off in a direction which feels right from the perspective of the camera, but which in fact is a dead end. And on one of the boat trips, when it feels like they are just starting their journey it is clear from the position of the Chungmu Marina Resort Hotel in the background that they are on their way back to the harbour, not just leaving it.

The coffee shop by Tongyeong harbour
The coffee shop overlooking Tongyeong harbour

None of that really matters. The other locations – Tongyeong’s small harbour, the Napoli Hotel – brought back happy memories (I’m sure I’ve been in that coffee shop where some of the filming was done), and it was nice to revisit Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s base on Hansan-do, where one of the characters recites the Admiral’s famous Song of Hansan-do composed at his lookout pavilion, and even dreams he meets the great man himself and has a deep and meaningful conversation about how to progress in life as the Admiral plays on his famous aquatic archery range.

It always helps watching the film with a Korean-speaking audience, as they will laugh at places where non-Koreans may not. Strangely, the audience did not laugh at what I thought was one of the funniest moments – when a dumb tourist either asks a very stupid question (after all, what properly educated Korean would ask whether Yi Sun-shin was really a hero? It would be worse than an Englishman asking a tour guide whether Nelson was a competent naval commander, or whether Churchill was any good as a wartime Prime Minister), or is intentionally trying to wind up his extremely cute tour guide. Whatever the motivation, Moon So-ri is suitably needled and launches into an impassioned speech about self-sacrifice, heroism, devotion to public duty, how without mastery of the sea Korea would never have survived the Japanese invasions, how it was only right that Admiral Yi should be known not only as a “hero” but as a “holy hero”. It’s not the sort of speech you expect from a humble tour guide speaking with a local Tongyeong accent, but she is obviously well-briefed and totally devoted to her work.

Tongyeong harbour
The much chased-after tour guide in Tongyeong harbour

Which also makes it amusing when, after the tour guide rounds up her talk to a bunch of schoolkids with a homespun talk on the theme of the famous Korean saying “you only see as much as you know,” the would-be film director from Seoul makes an inept attempt at engaging her in conversation by picking an argument with her homily, saying “the less you know, the more you see.” It dramatically fails as a pick-up line, and he has to work hard to win her over, which he tries to do for the rest of the film, drawn onwards by the shapeliness of her legs. There are plenty of amusing moments most of which arise from the parallel narratives of the two Seoulites who were in Tongyeong at the same time, interacting with the same tour guide, without their paths ever consciously crossing. Altogether, probably the most approachable of Hong’s films for a sceptic. And funny ha ha.

Hong Sang-soo (홍상수) HaHaHa (하하하, 2009) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

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