Hong Sang-soo makes films so quickly that distributors can’t keep up. Completing as many as three films in a given year, It may be difficult to find room in the cinema release calendar for the South Korean director’s low-key thematic repetitions of young people in and out of love, drinking and bitching, playing out in few shots and with his trademark zooms punctuating the drama. Outlining his process at a NYFF talk in 2017, Hong described his process: the whole script is written in the early hours before the first day of production, and editing, or “trimming,” is completed in around a day. Some of his films, like 2017’s On the Beach at Night Alone, ask for a familiarity with Hong’s work and personal life. Others, like Claire’s Camera, operate as a kind of in-joke to Hong disciples and fans of star Isabelle Huppert. For passive viewers, the insistent minimalism of the Hong metier and his structural games can be offputting. What is there to see here, if not the same thing over and over? Now, Film at Lincoln Center have kindly given us an answer, in making 2016’s Yourself and Yours available via their Virtual Cinema.
A lager-frothy comedy, Yourself and Yours is a perfect balance of Hong’s output, an ideal entry point for new viewers while delivering variations of the filmmaker’s recurrent themes. Joong-haeng (Kim Eui-sung) shows up at his friend Young-soo’s (Ju-hyuk Kim) apartment with a warning. Young-soo, an artist, is having a personal crisis, and isn’t ready to hear that people are talking about his girlfriend, Min-jung. She goes out drinking without him, the gossip goes. Young-soo says he counts her drinks to control them, they say she fights loudly with other men in bars.
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Then, Jae-young (Hong regular Kwon Hae-Hyo) hops off his fixed-gear bike and into a cafe, where he recognizes a woman (Yoo-Young Lee) and Hong drops his first of five bold zooms across the 85-minute runtime. Dumping his satchel at her table, Jae-young insists that she is Min-jung. The woman protests that she’s never heard that name, but soon tells the older man that she is in fact Min-jung’s twin sister — although she never gives her own name and drops a suspicious “we never talk about it much.” Hong has set up a tale of twins, or maybe not. The woman then returns to Young-soo’s apartment and goes by the name Min-jung. Young-soo, enraged by the gossip, confronts Min-jung, and the two appear to break up.
From there, Yourself and Yours is off to the races. Min-jung encounters several people in few locations, to whom she denies her identity, while Young-soo, now inexplicably with his leg in a cast, races around the neighborhood with increasing desperation as he tries to find her. “Our great Young-soo reduced to this,” people gossip at a bar while rain drizzles around them. As Hong repeats the same perpendicular shot patterns across quiet Seoul streets, the bars and boutiques feel as familiar as though it is your very own neighborhood. Every alley is bright and inviting, with the crystal clarity of the digital camera feeling as though Hong is sat on a street corner just people-watching. He luxuriates in the texture of bricks and plants, the creases on Young-soo’s shirt, the light bouncing off a pint glass. Yourself and Yours is a great summer movie, where the over-lit qualities reflect a state of mind more than an exact reality.
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Across the space of a single shot, Yourself and Yours breaks in and out of its characters’ imaginative perspectives. When Young-soo rings Min-jung’s doorbell, he hears her call from down the street, with the camera panning right to confirm her presence. When it moves left again, Min-jung is nowhere to be found. Dream and reality blur with little consequence. It’s a film, get over it, Hong seems to tell the audience. This economical filmmaking flattens the elements of Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel that the scenario suggests; whatever pulsating desire those filmmakers work through in Vertigo (1957) or That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) is seen by Hong as though through the bottom of a glass. Whether Min-jung is a twin, a liar or something else entirely is a question that fades. She clearly needs to be seen for what she actually is, rather than the person that all of the men she encounters want her to be. “You like that we overlap,” she tells Jae-young.
Yourself and Yours has a fun mystery between all the drinking, but doesn’t get lost there. The formal precision is in aid not of a structural rubric, but of a simple fable about how to succeed in relationships. Not being a Hong completist, I watched Yourself and Yours under the assumption that this was his latest work. As it began, the beats seemed familiar enough — gossip, women, booze, artists. About 10 minutes in, I realized for sure that I had seen Yourself and Yours before, when it played the London Korean Film Festival in 2016. That sensation of uneasy recognition is exactly what the cinema of Hong Sang-soo is all about. It’s familiar, but unfurls in irresistible shapes.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.