A new start. A fresh new start is all it takes.

Like voices brimming inside our souls, adamant to explode out in the open and be revealed for everyone to listen, such instincts can be very alluring, some of the most impulsive whims known to man. Sometimes you let them take over, wake up in the early morning in a Jerry Maguire-like frenzy and witness all that energy spurt out, to then somehow regret it later. Or maybe you make it a sort of real life McGuffin, only there to maintain status quo, like for Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung in Wong Kar-Wai's 春光乍洩 (Happy Together), not making a single step forward but always living off that wish, that distant chimera in the desert called a new life; a fresh new start. Especially when it comes to artists, such temptations can be very strong, devastatingly so. Think of Jang Seung-Eop in Im Kwon-Taek's 취화선 (Chihwaseon), bemoaning in front of his mentor how the mendacious fame he is enjoying is not made out of the blood, sweat and lonesome tears of an artist, but only the laborious fabrications of a copycat. Think of some of the greatest lights of the glorious Myeongdong of the 1950s, like painter Lee Jung-Seop and poet Park In-Hwan, abandoning themselves into the bittersweet embrace of the bottle and that alluring abyss called madness, tired of enduring a world which never accepted what they did as art. A fresh new start is all they needed. Alas, it never came.

Directors are no different, particularly when we're dealing with auteurs. Drenching every single new work with that unique style and approach to filmmaking can make for a rather endearing, in many ways comfortable experience for its purveyors, even when the playing field doesn't necessarily subscribe to the usual canons of auteur theory. Without the need to mention masters like Bong Joon-Ho or Park Chan-Wook, if you know what to expect from a Lee Myung-Se, Jang Jin or Ryu Seung-Wan film, it's likely that you will leave the theater with at least some form of satisfaction, because most of their films ooze that personal cinematic dialectic you've come to understand and appreciate with time. By all means, Hong Sang-Soo perfectly exemplifies that kind of experience, for his career has brought us eight films which felt more like eight chapters of a long novel on the life of this tremendously fascinating director, more than singular entities. You'd expect this book to continue without end. Then again, there could always be surprises along the way, like his latest chapter, 잘 알지도 못하면서 (Like You Know it All).

I was more than a little disappointed in regards to the rather underwhelming International title for Hong's ninth work. It's certainly not a bad rendition of the original, and longtime K-film fans will by now be used to linguistic contortions often bastardizing every inch of charm an original title might have possessed, so this is only a gentle compromise in comparison. Still, 잘 알지도 못하면서 is one of those endlessly fascinating riddles which the Korean language is full of: literally, it just means "you don't even know, but still..." Notice the last part. It's like an open ending, whereas the English translation is much more assertive. It could be, "you don't even know (me), but still pretend to do so," or "you don't even know (your own feelings), but still go on and confess before another woman that she's your soulmate, the woman you've been waiting for all your life." There are countless instances all over the film, suggesting how multi-faceted an expression it can be. So, yes, it might in a way feel like the most explicit, in your face film title of Hong's career, but then again it's filled to the brim with questions on that big enigma called life. And the moment you realize that, the quicker you'll sense how this "new start' is not really that much of a change for Hong. It's just put together in a different way.

It's easy to see why so many critics are heralding the advent of a new Hong Sang-Soo. Get down to simple nuts and bolts, and you'll see how this is the least expensive film Hong has ever shot, costing all of 180 million won - which made sure this also became his first ever film to break even, although it's by no means an impressive tally. Also, put together a list of names like Go Hyun-Jung, Ha Jung-Woo, Kim Tae-Woo, Yoo Joon-Sang, Moon So-Ri (voice acting only), Gong Hyung-Jin, Jung Yoo-Mi and Eom Ji-Won, and even the humongous cast of blockbusters like 해운대 (Haeundae) will start to tremble in all its ungodly silliness. Of course the key was their working for free, sacrificing their fees for the sole opportunity of collaborating with one of Korea's most eclectic and acclaimed directors. Ha himself pretty much "begged" for the role, calling Go on the phone as she was shooting -- the two first met each other in 2006, working on the TV police procedural 히트 (HIT) -- and wondering whether there could be any spot left for him, however small it was.

Working with Hong can certainly prove to be a charming challenge, set aside his domestic and International acclaim. He writes scripts on the day of the shooting or the night before, out of a barebones treatment, and you're given a few pages' worth of dialogue, having to improvise on the fly, trusting your instincts and ability to give your best right away, for what will mostly be very long scenes shot in one take. You need an incredible sense of adaptation, enabling you to react to the circumstances with much more resonance and spontaneity than what is usually asked from an actor. So those working with him inevitably improve. Notice on 선덕여왕 (Queen Seondeok) what working with Hong did to Go Hyun-Jung's acting, and you'll soon understand the point. Some compare it to military training, but it's probably something closer to standing on the stage and trying to improvise next to a Wynton Marsalis or other gods of jazz.

I always enjoyed that aspect of Hong's films, because it made them feel much more real, and I'm not talking about cinéma vérité sensibilities. It was always fabricated spontaneity, all right, but this improv acting approach always made sure all those gloriously awkward moments would truly deliver in the best possible way. Take his infamous sex scenes, always interrupted by hilarity and awkwardness one instant before they risked becoming voyeuristic; or his notorious drinking scenes, during which actors often drink to enhance the feeling, and deliver the kind of disarmingly frank and awkward pathos that you never find in other Korean films. That kind of unbidden, often ridiculous energy and breeze is what made his films special, going beyond what was always a rather trite setup (man leaves for the countryside on vacation or for business, meets people, gets drunk and possibly has sex, makes an ass of himself, leaves. Rewind. Play). You'll certainly find those elements in this film as well (minus the explicit sex, which is no longer part of Hong's cinematic interests, it seems), but the approach is a bit different.

Saying he's become a little more mainstream would be misleading, but there are traces of an enhanced desire to communicate at all cost, not only to those who "got" his previous films, but also those who couldn't, or didn't want to understand them. Set aside the title, this might be Hong's most explicit and forthright film to date, from the collection of voiceovers highlighting the mood more often than you'd like to down to simple camerawork, which directs your attention and puts the spotlight over certain spaces and reactions over others. Confront that with the quasi Hou Hsiao-Hsien like visual aura of his past works, and the change is all the more noticeable. But his dialogue has also changed, immersing itself in the kind of exposition and long-winded commentary that would often drench the work of lesser indie directors. I can't say I'm terribly fond of these cosmetic changes, mostly because they tend to cheapen that spontaneity which always set Hong's films apart.

Sometimes the approach does reap rewards though, particularly in the awkward asymmetry shown by a female student, reacting to two different facets of the same concept in hilariously opposite ways: first it's Kim Tae-Woo, the notorious auteur who makes strange works nobody seems to understand, but everyone strangely ends up liking, talking about this unique artistic vision of his, about his thriving to undertake that journey of personal discovery reached through the improvisational process his works can give him. The result? He's half-jokingly derided with a "Director, you talk like a philosopher." When it's the elder painter (veteran Moon Chang-Gil, returning to Chungmuro after two decades spent mostly on TV) with all his charismatic savoir faire saying pretty much the same thing, adorned by embellished words and the panache of an experienced seducer, the result is being called "a genius" by the same lady, after which suspicious moaning sounds come from the room next door, right as the old master left "for a cigarette" and the student headed for the bathroom. All she asked them was "why do you do this?" Imagine if it was a more complex question.

Now, the biggest difference at play here is not so much this ironical and clever dialectic, that is something most Hong films have displayed over the years. It's rather that sense of detachment you feel throughout the film. For instance, if you begin by asserting that Kim Tae-Woo has become a sort of "persona" for Hong, a muse through which he delves into his cinematic psyche, explaining through that diabolically charming machine going at 24 frames per second what he probably wouldn't be able to divulge with mere words, then you'll notice that his films are becoming increasingly introspective. This director ""alter ego" started appearing from 여자는 남자의 미래다 (Woman is the Future of Man) - obviously played by Kim Tae-Woo - and has become a recurring character in most of his later films. Take the rest of his work focusing on this figure, and you'll notice something very close to a first-person approach, a full immersion into the character's psyche, but things begin to change in Like You Know it All. There might be voiceovers giving color to Gyeong-Nam's thoughts and seemingly rowing through the narrative current, but you're always given space to reflect upon his actions from an emotionally distant point.

Take, for instance, the party at the film festival. They're all more or less in the industry in some way or form (programmers, directors, actors and the like), but Gyeong-Nam is almost forced to sort of "mark his territory," establish his credentials in front of everyone else. He does so particularly when an old college mate of his (famous novelist Kim Yeon-Soo in a curious cameo) joins the fray, as a very successful commercial director. The guy, as Gyeong-Nam suggests us, used to run around him almost like a groupie during the glory days, but now that he's a big shot, he doesn't even bother with deferentials, he goes straight for "Director Gu." How disrespectful. Can he challenge him on the success of his films? Not amongst that kind of company, not with the box office results his career has been blessed with. So he goes for the cheap shot: "were you always this short?"

Were this a pre-"transformation" Hong film, he would have mostly focused on Gyeong-Nam alone, but you see the same patterns used for many other characters here - just to remain at the party, the former adult-video starlet who "took it all off in a fancy arthouse flick and now calls herself actress," trying to reform her career by going straight for the big shot director, in more ways than one. Everyone here is trying to save face and make his or her mark, which is why everything that is said in this collection of scenes feels like an ad-hoc fabrication. The human animal's constant struggle with hypocrisy and compromise has always been a staple of Hong films, but this time he enlarges the scope even further, taking a few steps back and observing this jungle from afar. This is a sort of double-edged sword: the theme emerges in much stronger fashion, but the detachment makes the characters less interesting, particularly because they feel like vessels working for the sake of that same thematic consciousness. They're clearly not cardboard cutouts, but the journey of repetition and that strange rendition of coincidence (or destiny, if you prefer) which always marked Hong's work has become a tad too precious at times.

Precious like his naming choices, for instance. Kim Tae-Woo seems to have come to Jecheon and Jeju just as an observer, so he is christened as Gu Gyeong-Nam ("Observing Man"). Gong Hyung-Jin's character, after a rather crazy accident at his home with Gyeong-Nam, ends up injuring him, so he could only be called Bu Sang-Yong ("For Injury's Sake"), not to mention the spiritual hoopla of his lover played by Jung Yoo-Mi, who is Yu-Shin ("There's a God!"). I'd expect this kind of cutesy nomenclature from third rate weekend drama writers like Moon Young-Nam or Im Sung-Han, but coming from Hong Sang-Soo... it's not cute. Nor funny, at all. I also don't find much "diegetic" beauty in his new obsession with zoom lenses which started with 극장전 (Tale of Cinema), showing us a nice frog swimming in a pool or a worm passing by as human irony goes on, for no other reason than the fact they were "beautiful," as he often said on various interviews. I might understand the will to show that, whatever smoke and mirrors might color the shenanigans of us mortals, nature goes on. But if it has to come via something lacking any organic or narrative flair like this, it just feels like the proverbial CG bastardizing a Dogme film.

What Hong has gained from "growing up" as a filmmaker is a stronger thematic consciousness, that is hard to deny. You'll watch this film and be reminded of that very title every single minute, from how easy it is to misunderstand people or criticize them and go through the same exact sins, to our empty and misguided desires to change things without first looking inside our souls. It's an eye opener in many ways, filled with clever situations that always point the finger at how hilariously conflicted and hypocritical the human psyche can be. But what he has lost in the process is a lot of that spontaneous breeze and irreverence which charmingly drenched his past works. Like You Know It All tries to open the door for more people to come in, but then manages to forget what people passed through that door for.

Did I like this film? It's a strange question. I think of Hong Sang-Soo as the Korean equivalent of Eric Rohmer, and that is in not necessarily a stylistic comparison. Their films just blend for me, even those (like this one) which give you more things to negatively reflect upon than you've been used to. I like the fact that Hong Sang-Soo's films continue to exist, and I still enjoy the eclectic vibes watching a Hong film can give you. I'm just not sure whether this pleasant limbo made of frigid respect and admiration, this book made of several chapters all somehow telling the same story has really any destination, or any closing word which will leave a lasting mark. They just seem to exist, and continue to drench our journeys to the movies with more of what they've been known for. I can't say it's terribly exciting anymore after the initial infatuation, but a film world devoid of their touch would feel somehow incomplete.

So here I am, waiting for a new chapter, a new start which will likely bring us back to point one once again. Then again, who knows, it might as well be a completely new journey. Like I know it all....


잘 알지도 못하면서 (Like You Know it All)
Director: 홍상수 (Hong Sang-Soo)
Screenplay: 홍상수 (Hong Sang-Soo)
D.P.: 김훈광 (Kim Hoon-Gwang)
Music: 정용진 (Jung Yong-Jin)
Produced by: Jeonwonsa Film
Int'l Sales: Finecut
126 Minutes, HD 1.85:1 Color
Release: 05/14/2009 (18 and Over)
CAST: 김태우 (Kim Tae-Woo), 고현정 (Go Hyun-Jung), 엄지원 (Eom Ji-Won), 유준상 (Yoo Joon-Sang), 공형진 (Gong Hyung-Jin), 정유미 (Jung Yoo-Mi), 문창길 (Moon Chang-Gil), 하정우 (Ha Jung-Woo), 서영화 (Seo Young-Hwa), 문소리 (Moon So-Ri - VOICE CAMEO)

Like You Know It All

  • Sang-soo Hong
  • Sang-soo Hong (screenplay)
  • Tae-woo Kim
  • Ji-won Uhm
  • Hyun-jung Go
  • Hyeong-jin Kong
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Sang-soo HongTae-woo KimJi-won UhmHyun-jung GoHyeong-jin KongDrama

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