Blithe, clever and littered with abstruse bursts of farcical conflict, two friends reminisce over their journeys to the same coastal town
An elderly mother spanks her adult son’s bare legs with a coat hanger while an angry girlfriend forces her cheating boyfriend to be piggybacked by her in high heels. Hahaha hits its title description while providing some of the most memorable Director Hong scenes.
In a filmography which provides variations on certain themes, Hahaha might be considered as an ideal entry point for those not familiar with Hong’s work. The reason being there are so many skirmishs that offer some dramatic tension, providing perhaps an ideal starting place to move through to Hong’s more low-key and conversationalist works.
It also provides one of the most lucid demonstrations of a regular Hong theme – the ‘patheticness’ of some men. Part social commentary, part self-deprecation from Hong himself.
The two main men that fall into this category are filmmaker Moon-kyung (Kim Sang-kyung) and his friend Joong-sik (Yoo Jun-sang) who have met for a seemingly endless flow of soju to discussion separate trips they both took to the seaside town of Tongyeong.
This discussion appears in black-and-white photos with voiceover, while the flashbacks are in full colour playback, a neat subversion of this cinematic device. As they unravel their various stories, it becomes apparent they met the same people on their trips.
Such linked characters include Seong-ok (Moon So-ri), who gives cultural talks to schoolchildren and tourists, a poet Jeong-ho (Kim Kang-woo), and a brilliant supporting role from Youn Yuh-jung as Moon-kyung's mother, who plays a tenacious and blunt motherly figure.
The idea of these separate trips, but similar experiences and social interactions, ties into much of Hong’s work, which consists of several chance meetings and looped actions.
Both Moon-kyung and Joong-sik prioritise their womanising, actioning lies and outright pitiable begging. They both break down in tears (not in some progressive in touch with emotions manner) and implore to get their way just because they want to.
However, when they look back on their trips they do so with masculine pride, portraying themselves as lotharios and men of romantic purpose.
As with all Hong films, there are plenty of soju-swigging scenes, indeed this is the majority of set-ups, but there is also threats of violence, even if they end up being of the schoolyard variety.
The soju often provides the route through to various petty jealousies coming to the surface and resulting in a conflict that could easily be avoided if everyone was not so thin-skinned and insecure. However, this is a film about the fragility of masculinity, so they almost always bubble over.
The film title is also the regular sound which fills the catch-up session by Moon-kyung and Joong-sik. Laughing with full joy at their seaside trip, when really those trips were filled with embarrassment, humiliation and tears. Hong is imploring us to remember that the next time we hear someone recollect an efficacious trip away.