Hong Sang-soo, 2016 | 2017
“Don’t try to know everything,” says Minjung (Lee You-young), the central female protagonist in Hong Sang-soo’s latest mindbender, YOURSELF AND YOURS.
The notion that ‘needing to know’ is overrated might be useful to bare in mind when negotiating Hong’s many cryptic excursions into the alcohol-fuelled lives of his largely self-deluded characters – mostly men. Reviewers cite Bunuel’s Obscure Object of Desire and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy as possible influences on Yourself and Yours, and while it may be a playful riff on Bunuel’s central conceit, Kiarostami’s enigmatic thought-piece was most likely influenced by Hong. Others see parallels with Woody Allen and Richard Linklater’s ‘Sunset’ series, but Eric Rohmer might be a more pertinent touchstone. That said, Hong’s cinema differs markedly from Rohmer’s in its quasi-autobiographical reflexivity, and in his signature use of temporal shifts and narrative digressions: loops, repetitions, diversions, inventions, dreams, memories, and projections.
Yourself and Yours kicks off with painter Youngsoo (Kim Joo-hyuk) sharing concerns about the imminent death of his mother to a friend, and wondering if the time might be right to marry Minjung. His friend scoffs at this, telling him that she has been getting shit-faced in bars and getting into scraps. Youngsoo is furious that Minjung broke the agreement they made over curtailing her alcohol intake, and after a heated argument she decides that their relationship should be put on hold. She walks out and promptly disappears. Youngsoo looks everywhere for her, but to no avail. Sometime later, writer Jaeyoung (Kwon Hae-hyo) bumps into Minjung in a coffee shop and stops to chat, but she claims that he has mistaken her for someone else. Jaeyoung is adamant that they know each other, but Minjung says that he must be confusing her with her twin sister. They start seeing other, but she soon breaks it off saying, “I’m not interested. It can’t be helped.” The situation repeats with Sangwon (Yu Jun-sang), a filmmaker who is equally infatuated with Minjung.
As often happens in a Hong film, there are scenes that turn out to be projections of a character’s fantasies and imagination rather than ‘real’ events. Hong uses this delightful ambiguity to toy with scenes that may or may not be projections. This ‘uncertainty of veracity’ is one of the most delicious aspects of a Hong film, reminding us that cinema is a manipulative medium, and that ‘cinematic truth’ is not just relative but entirely up for grabs. It also tells us that Hong is a very manipulative filmmaker, but in the best post-modern sense. He never overtly breaks the fourth wall, but that’s because he addresses the viewer at every moment. It’s one of the reasons why Hong’s discreetly charming puzzle-pieces have such a dedicated and enthusiastic following among cinephiles.
It’s clear that the absurd narrative premise of Yourself and Yours should not to be taken literally, that rather than waste time pondering narrative veracity we should get on with the real business of teasing out Hong's underlying subtext. In this sense there's a real benefit to seeing Hong's films two or even three times. In the final sequence of Yourself and Yours the ‘uncertainty of veracity’ ruse is used to emphasise Minjung’s implication that ‘knowing’ is overrated.
Just as Minjung’s comment about not trying to know everything informs Yourself and Yours, CLAIRE’S CAMERA is framed by a comment from the titular protagonist when she says, “The only way to change things is to look at them again … very slowly.” Claire (Isabelle Huppert, evidently relishing every whimsical moment in the role) believes that her Polaroid camera changes the lives of every person it captures. “If I take your photo,” she says, “you are no longer the same person.” Her belief in the transformative power of her camera encapsulates the tone of this wonderfully airy musing on the affecting potential of art – especially cinema – to a tee.
At just over an hour, this feather-light charmer makes an ideal primer for anyone entering the Escher-like world of Hong Sang-soo. A melancholic miniature about two women adrift in the late-Spring warmth of Cannes at film festival time, it’s the Korean master’s most Rohmer-esque excursion to date. After a chance encounter with Man-hee (Kim Min-hee), recently sacked from a job she didn’t particularly like as a movie sales agent and now at a loose end in the South of France, Clair and her newfound friend lead each other (or more to the point, are led by writer-director Hong) through a whimsical set of serendipitous encounters that effectively confirm the magical powers of Claire’s camera – and the abiding power and charm of Hong Sang-soo’s remarkable cinema, films that might even change you if you are willing to look at them very, very, very slowly.