K-Economy – Like You Know It All

It can be quite fun going to film festivals, hanging around like-minded people. For me, I particularly enjoy meeting the Malaysian filmmakers in Korean festivals. They’re usually in a good mood, obviously because their own films were invited, and therefore they were all nice, pleasant people to hang around with. In any other situation, it may well be difficult to meet the same bunch of people in any  one place under such relaxed circumstances. Everyone’s far away from home, so there’s a tendency to bunch close together and enjoy each other’s company a little bit than usual, I think. Perhaps it is an extension of the survivor’s mentality. Who knows?

It was at one of these festivals that I hung out with a group of filmmakers (though they’re not necessarily Malaysians0. They are people who really work in the film industry in Korea; me, I am still technically a student (certainly was at the time anyway). In terms of experience and connections, I’ve got nothing to compare to these people, and being somewhat on the outside (not just an outsider), it’s fun to hear anecdotes about the films in the festivals, how they’re made, and the stories behind the stories, so to speak.

“Apparently he fell in love with one of the film programmers in Cannes,” said one of them. I immediately thought back to what someone had once asked me a long time ago: “Where do you get your ideas?” “From everything” was my response, but if what I was told is true, then it’s very clear that ‘Like You Know It All’ is a film that may well be reflecting Hong Sang-soo’s life again.

"Ella, ella...no, not under my umbrella."

Not that it’s the first time he has done that, though. Here, we follow the story of Gu Kyeong-nam (Kim Tae-woo), a director famous for his artistic films that people don’t really truly understand. He arrives at the Jaecheon International Music Film Festival, and promptly falls in love with the rather lovely programmer Gong Hyeon-hee (Eom Ji-won). She proves to be a somewhat volatile person, though, being kind one minute and then, with the slightest hint of solitude, would tear into the director with fearless abandon. At the same time, he meets his old friend, Bu Sang Yong (Gong Hyeong-jin), and follows him back to his home. He spends the night there, but the next day, in his hotel room, he receives a letter from him telling him to never come back again. Soon after that, he goes to Jeju Island to deliver a talk about his film, where, funnily enough, a lot of the same things started to occur again…

It may seem that the description of the synopsis is a mere bouncing off one point to the next with little to no connection between each point. In some ways, the film does proceed on that level. It moves along very quickly, in rapid succession. But let me begin by explaining the title of this review first. K can stand for knowledge, but not in this case. In this case, it stands for Korean. And economy can be used to mean the economy of, say, a particular country or region. The one that deals with money and financial issues. But not in this case (at least, not particularly directly). Here, I mean it as something simple, basic, and no-frills in nature. For in many ways, if ‘Like You Know It All’ is a supermarket, it may well be compared to places like Kwiksave or Lidl rather than Tesco or E-mart. Minimum camera movements, minimum effects, minimum fuss.

The Korean remake of 'Friends' was poorly cast.

Minimum planning, too. As has been the style of Hong Sang-soo, he apparently moves forward into the production without much plan about where it is the production is really heading. I read that his crews can spend days twiddling their thumbs and swinging their feet as he sits trying to figure out what to do or say in the scenes. Beyond the barest of outlines, here is one of the few directors around who is willing, still, to trust his instincts in the heat of the moment. Off the top of my head, only the revered Wong Kar-wai is another filmmaker brave enough to stand for that. It is an feat that is even more remarkable considering, from my observations and research, how structured Korean filmmakers can be. It is a strength to be admired, and in many ways, it’s a more comfortable way of doing things if everyone know exactly what is needed at which time. Hong Sang-soo, on the other hand, eschews this tradition, and does things his own way.

One such example is the drinking scenes in his films. They tend to be done improvisationally, off the cuff and on the fly. He’d give his actors the key points to hit, and they’d decide how to hit it. Some may even be encouraged to drink, to further establish the realistic performances required. His actors relish this, too; perhaps it is an appreciation of his trust of them, as well as being let of the leash of other, more dictatorial productions (and probably the chance to deliberately mess up their takes so they can drink more soju, too 🙂 ). Apparently some of the cast members even begged to be cast in this film; all of them took next-to-nothing fees to work with one of Korea’s recognised auteurs.

The undressing began in his eyes.

Minimum, too, are the number of cuts. A lot of the shots are mostly long shots, right from the beginning till the very end. It makes for a natural unfolding of things, and it is this naturalness that I appreciate a lot. It doesn’t mean that it is perfect; one scene, featuring Gyeong-nam with the programmer and a foreign director feels somewhat fake because of the foreign director. I had the feeling that the Caucasian director is almost merely a token inclusion, to be included for the sake of internationalising the film festival. His acting feels wooden, the delivery of his lines feels insincere; quite frankly, it feels like he is someone the director found off the street to include in his film. Thankfully, his scenes are far and few in between, but it still makes from some grating moments.

Someone who takes up almost every scene is the main character, of course. Gyeong-nam plays someone who seems to resemble Hong Sang-soo himself, but while some of my friends have been turned off by the amount of apparent self-praise, I think the director is merely interested in taking the piss of himself. Assuming, of course, that the main character is inspired by the man in the big seat himself, there are a lot of scenes of people practically bowing down to him in ultimate reverence, but throughout the film he is shown as something of a bumbling fool. Never exactly being in charge of the situations, never the one to have the presence to take over a room, but he stumbles from one situation to the next, and he never seems to know how to react.

The battle for the last soju bottle is on.

It may seem self-indulgent, but he uses all the tools available at this disposable. He’d zoom in, closely, on what it is he’d want us to see. A couple would reconcile on the bench right outside their house, and the camera, suddenly, would tilt down and zoom in on an earthworm, slowly wiggling his way across the earth. What is the purpose? What is the intention? Is it a suggestion that life somehow goes on no matter what? Is there a direct correlation between the couple and the worm, given the proximity and the direction it’s headed in? Or could it be merely the camera operator being subservient to the director’s whims and desires? Whatever it is, it is rather well done, seemingly planned rather than spontaneous. It takes skill to keep the camera loose, and maintain a smooth movement, and yet be able to swerve and tilt almost at will without much of a notice, zoom and maintain the focus all within a single shot. Don’t play play one, OK?

Ultimately, ‘Like You Know It All’ becomes a film that seems to tip over the border into the country known as satire more than anything else. Taken seriously, it seems like a self-indulgent film that encourages people to take the main character’s words at face value. Looked at it in that way, it may even strike you as boring. I’ll be honest, in some parts, I do wonder about the rabbit hole the director is leading us down into. As I have mentioned earlier, it seems that the characters move from one point to the next without little warning, and without too much consequences. It may not help that the film itself makes the main character look like a fool at times, instead of vindicating him. He tries hard to explain himself, but he gets shot down in the process: “Director, you talk like a philosopher.” When someone else, a renowned artist repeated pretty much the same words, the artist is branded as a genius. What is going on here? A reflection of the two-faced game that is life?

Because of that, I’m never entirely sure what to make of this film. It can be funny, it can be interesting, and at times I feel as if I’m being given a good look at what is precisely on the director’s mind, what Hong Sang-soo himself has been wanting to say to a lot of people over the years. At times, it can even be funny, as some of the ridiculous situations unfold themselves. I appreciate the style of filmmaking, but as a result of that, ultimately, Hong Sang-soo has crafted a film that has surprised us, and may take us to places we didn’t expect. Unfortunately, It doesn’t necessarily mean that the place is somewhere we really want to go.

Unless its a nice seaside film festival, of course…

Fikri attended the Jaechon International Music Film Festival some years ago. The town was really, really small.

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