Yourself and Yours ★★★

[6]

"This is mysterious and fun!"
"Then enjoy it. Knowing is not as important as we think."

In case there are still folks claiming that all of Hong's films are the same, and those folks are somehow still in your life and you haven't slapped them into next Thursday, one sure-fire way to disabuse them of that cockamamie notion is to set them in front of his latest, Yourself and Yours, and then offer nearly any other Hong film as a chaser. The difference is self-evident, and in fact it was this rather significant shift in Hong's modus operandi that initially threw me for a loop. After sitting with Y&Y for about 24 hours, and going back to review some key scenes, I like it a bit more than I did at first. But it is still a transitional film, to say the least.

So many of Hong's films represent permutations on a set of primary building blocks (male egotism, sexual inadequacy, social blunders, the South Korean creative class, endlessly flowing soju, etc.), and it's this consistency of focus that has been the bugbear for skeptics and non-converts. The rest of us, I think, understand Hong as more of a structuralist, sort of a narrative-driven cousin to artists like Ken Jacobs or, perhaps more precisely, those found footage excavators who use avant-garde technique as a means to conduct historical inquiry -- people such as Johan Grimonprez, Bill Morrison, Péter Forgács, and the team of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. The territory remains the same, but even a relatively small fragment of human history contains a multitude of stories. Within this creative ethos, the filmmaker's job is to gently tilt and turn the crystal and reveal its many faces, and not to lug their equipment from mine to mine.

Usually, Hong's films involve repetition and bifurcation, and this structure implies either the protagonist's inability to recognize difference in his world, or an opportunity to observe a set of circumstances from two perspectives (usually that of a flawed man and a clear-eyed woman). But Y&Y is not like this. After introducing its central romantic dilemma, the film mostly moves in a straight line. The question of perspective is collapsed onto the problems of truth vs. falsehood, paranoia vs. trust. Other than Hong occasionally aligning these themes between character behavior and some possible nondiegetic, directorial sleight of hand, Y&Y plays like an all-too-low-key riff on Vertigo.

But without flashbacks, or dream sequences, or anything that suggests Hitchcock's grand melodrama, Yourself and Yours feels strangely stripped down, even accessible. That last word, I hasten to add, is not a dirty one in my book, but it does speak to the manner in which Hong's complex gamesmanship and philosophical gender inquiry has been reduced to a single fundamental question. Youngsoo (Kim Joohyuck) is tipped off by his extremely nosy best friend Junghaeng (Kim Euisung) that his girlfriend Minyung (Lee Youyoung) has been seen stepping out, hitting the bars and drinking with other men. When confronted, Minyung denies it, but Youngsoo pushes her. She breaks it off with him, and he spends the rest of the film looking for Minyung so he can apologize. He thinks he sees her everywhere, as do we.

There is more happening in Y&Y, most notably Hong showing us the extended sequences during which actress Lee (playing an unnamed woman - we are never definitively told whether it is Minyung) has drinks with older men. But over the course of the film, we see this woman deny that she is Minyung. Once, she claims to be Minyung's twin sister, someone neither Youngsoo nor any of their friends has heard of. At other times, the woman simply encounters previous acquaintances (or so it appears) and claims, in no uncertain terms, not to know them, not to be the woman they think she is.

Whereas in previous Hong films one found a doubling pattern, or some other structural repetition that signaled that the uncertainties of identity were primarily textual - that is, being set up by the director for us to parse, if not exactly puzzle out - Y&Y at least appears to operate in a more straightforward way. Minjung is a liar. And this is the problem. Youngsoo's damaged psyche does find a more typical analog in Hong's formalism at certain moments (such as his first reunion with Minjung, when she welcomes him back unreservedly, and we are suddenly back outside her apartment with Youngsoo, indicating that the reunion was his fantasy. But for the most part, Y&Y offers a fairly clear explanation for its inconsistencies. And, in the fact that it blames the woman, it's more than just a departure for Hong. It's at least a partial abandonment of his feminist sympathies.

Now, I would not want to overstate the case here. Hong has cited Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire as a direct inspiration for Y&Y, and there is nothing in the film that exactly rules out reading the film as having a radically unstable diegetic world. Minjung could have a secret twin. Her random drinking dates with 45 year old men could be psychological projections, either of Youngsoo in his jealous desperation, or of the "friends" who rat her out, all of whom are quick to condemn a young woman taking initiative with respect to her own pleasure and public identity. And of course, this being cinema, every single appearance of Minjung could be a different iteration of the same character, since (a) she does not exist, and (b) none of us, truly, are stable subjects, constant in time.

But the conclusion, which finds Youngsoo deciding that he was wrong to believe the rumors, to mistreat and disbelieve Minjung, provides much more clarity than perhaps even Hong intended. Not unlike Robert Mitchum's ardent resignation to Jane Greer's femme fatale in Out of the Past - "Baby...I don't care!" - Youngsoo has decided that his passion for Minyung outranks everything, even a sincere question about her honesty. Hong seems to expect his viewers to feel the same way, and the final shot (a repeat of the lonesome fantasy, but with a different result), shows us the rewards that await us if we do.

Maybe I'm just not enough of a romantic for Yourself and Yours