For those familiar with the films of Hong Sang-soo, there’s really only one thing you need to know: The new one is pretty major, and not just because they drink beer this time instead of the usual soju. For those who haven’t yet been introduced to this singularly idiosyncratic Korean auteur, “Yourself and Yours” is as good a place to start as any.
But first, a quick primer: Hong Sang-soo movies have never been about what happens. Some of them are about what happened, some of them are about what could have happened, and — increasingly — some of them are about the difference between the two. Of course, the joke with Hong is that his movies are pretty much indistinguishable, these rueful, belligerently drunken comedies so similar that watching any two of them in succession is like doing one of those cartoon puzzles where you have to spot the minute differences between seemingly identical drawings. In the one on the left, a horny, self-destructive thirtysomething filmmaker as he goes to a bitterly cold town in rural Korea and gets shit-faced on soju with one or several local women (often either an old flame or a new fan). In the one on the right, the thirtysomething filmmaker is wearing a different winter hat.
Hong’s last film, the brilliant “Right Now, Wrong Then,” was such a helpful master key into his mind because it took that approach literally, resetting the story halfway through in order to run through it a second time and invite viewers to chart the minor deviations (and major ramifications). From “Blind Chance” to “Sliding Doors,” there have been any number of movies about how even the most innocuous decisions can ripple out from the fissures they cause in space-time, but Hong’s are so petulantly profound because they recognize how people fracture with every choice they make.
With no small amount of resentment and self-loathing, he leverages matters of the heart to obsessively explore how each path we take — and by “we,” I mean “boorish, destructive men” — is a direct negation of another. Or all others. His films, even the ones that ostensibly center on women, are consumed with the anxiety that choosing to be with one person is the same thing as choosing not to be with billions of others. That choosing who we are is a process of constant negation.
In “Yourself and Yours,” Hong cleverly turns that idea on its head, allowing the most playfully inexplicable of his narrative experiments to run with the idea that we can be more than one person at any given time. Kind of. Maybe. It’s hard to say. Set at the height of summer and scored to the jaunty muzak that Hong always uses to take the piss out of his self-involved characters, the film begins with an exasperated painter named Youngsoo (newcomer Kim Joo-hyuck) whose mother is on her deathbed.
Dropping by a friend’s house for a comforting chat, Youngsoo’s sadness over the imminent loss of a loved one is almost immediately sidelined by a rumor that his girlfriend, Minjung (Lee You-young) was recently spotted getting shit-faced in a local bar. Our bumbling hero is incensed — Minjung had promised him that she’d drink less, that she’d restrain herself to their agreed upon limit of five beers and two shots per night. He’ll dump her later that night.
Meanwhile, we meet Minjung — or someone who looks just like her — sitting in a coffee shop, and being chatted up by Jaeyoung (Kwon Hae-hyo), an overeager writer who swears that they’ve met before. She vehemently insists that he’s mistaken, and then drops a line of dialogue so knotty that we’ll spend the rest of the movie trying to untangle it: She tells him that she’s a twin. Hong doesn’t expect anyone to accept that information at face value (even Jaeyoung appears to be a bit skeptical), but even the suggestion of the fact that Minjung might have a doppelgänger is enough to knock reality off its axis, to twinge everything with uncertainty.
The woman sleeps with the writer and starts to date a small handful of other men, but all of them misconstrue her identity, and Youngsoo only seems to see Minjung in his daydreams. How many of her are there?
“Yourself and Yours” isn’t a mystery so much as it is a bottomless rabbit hole — Hong borrowing the central gimmick of Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire” in order to make his own riff on Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy.” As always, he uses a lo-fi narrative device to complicate romantic entanglements so that they unfold on screen in the same jumble as they do in our own twisted minds, the filmmaker taking a kaleidoscopic approach in order to refract Minjung through a singularly male prism of neurosis and desire.
Youngsoo, Jaeyoung, and all of the other men in the movie see women as nothing more than the sum of their secrets — the moment Youngsoo thinks he can know everything about Minjung is the moment he starts to forget who she is. Hong’s films are crusted over with a warm layer of self-aware chauvinism, and this one in particular crackles with the admission that men have a tendency to reduce women in an attempt to understand them (in that sense, it almost feels like you could trace a direct line between Hong Sang-soo and Lars von Trier).
The fact that Hong is currently embroiled in a sordid affair of his own only makes “Yourself and Yours” feel that much more authentic in its fumbling towards any kind of peace. And while it lacks the resonance or dramatic heft of “Right Now, Wrong Then” or “The Day He Arrives,” it careens across one of the filmmaker’s sharpest scripts, and is nicked by several of his funniest lines (a climatic scene in which the tables turn on Minjung builds to a belly laugh worthy of “Toni Erdmann”).
But what most cements this as a essential chapter in the big book of Hong is how willing the film is to trip itself up and get turned around. Hong has always taken more pleasure in raising questions than providing answers, but “Yourself and Yours” is like watching the Minotaur get lost in his own maze — seldom have its director’s signature zooms felt like they were so sincerely looking for something. “Don’t try to know everything,” Minjung cautions, but Hong can’t help himself.
“Yourself and Yours” is playing at the New York Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.