AFI Fest 2016: Yourself and Yours / Crosscurrent, by Scott Nye
Hong Sang-soo’s last several films have focused on schematic narratives designed to ensure repetition – the same story told slightly differently three times (In Another Country), the pages of a letter are mixed up and the story is told out of order (Hill of Freedom), or a slight tweak of conversational approach causes a chance meeting to branch off in very different directions (Right Now, Wrong Then). The set-up for his latest, Yourself and Yours, suggests much of the same, but represents instead a distinct breaking point for Hong. While the sudden emergence of a woman (Lee Yoo-young) who looks exactly like Youngsoo’s (Kim Joo-hyuk) ex does draw in its share of repetitions and variations on a theme, Hong heightens the sense of purgatory that pervades many of his films. His characters seem truly unable to escape their obsessions, their regret, and their curiosity. His bitter irony turns to near-melodrama, as Youngsoo slowly gives into his inability to understand Minjung and what he did to make her leave.
His characters are often trapped in circular movements in abandoned spaces. The latter is doubly true of Yourself and Yours, which is crammed into tiny apartments, coffee shops, bars, and alleys, all populated by the same rotating band of lonely hearts. When Minjung (or her double/twin/ghost) reappears, she sports an entirely different personality and outlook. Yeong-soo isn’t the only one confused. Other guys who claim to have met her at publishing houses and social gatherings swear she’s who she says she isn’t. She also admits she has a twin. And there were those rumors of Minjung cheating on Yeong-soo that could be explained by her presence…and yet, she knows more than she should if she isn’t Minjung…and sometimes appears literally out of thin air.
To attempt to solve this would be a waste of mental resources, as Hong abandons all concerns for how these puzzles erupt. He and his film are far more interested in the way people cope with distrust, how they seek reconciliation, and how much of relationships involve just letting go of disagreements and arguments; in this case, over someone’s very identity. You can spend a lifetime sliding into nitpicks and jealousy, or build something based on common goals and beliefs.
The matter-of-fact presentational style Hong and his frequent cinematographer Park Hong-yeol utilize at once foregrounds the character relationships and makes his surrealism all the more effective. It’s one thing when the plot slips in and out of convincing reality in a Fellini film; the presentation virtually guarantees it. But by shooting on lower-end digital video, exclusively utilizing long, fixed takes, and centering the film around often-hilarious conversations, the immediate suggestion is a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic. This is true, to a degree, but Hong assumes the walls are moveable. What we can assume to be the rules of the coffee shop or the bar may change the next time we see it. Its physical properties remain unchanged, but the people within them, familiar though they may seem, are in fact quite different. Minjung isn’t Minjung. Might Youngsoo not be Youngsoo?
Less surprising in its surrealistic bend is Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent, another film about chasing the illusion of a woman towards infinity. Gao Chun (Qin Hao) has just inherited his father’s boat, and is embarking on his first voyage as captain when he spots a beautiful woman (Xin Zhilei) near the shore. When he sees her later, she’s a prostitute; he eagerly purchases her services. He’ll see her again and again at each oncoming port, never quite the same woman and never quite distinct. Shot by Mark Lee Ping-bing (The Assassin, In the Mood for Love), one of the greatest cinematographers we’ve ever had, Crosscurrent is a beautiful experience, transportive and meditative.
It is also, admittedly, quite dense, and your patience for thematically-driven philosophical musing amidst superimpositions of poetry might be thinner than mine. I was quite content to let much of this drift over my head as the boat travels down the Yangtze River, apparently regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization. For much of the film, it does feel as though we’re being rocked along a preordained path. Later, of course, Chun will devote more of the ship’s course to seeking the woman than delivering his goods; any story which begins in pursuit of an unattainable woman must end in some form of madness.
Love s tricky, but infatuation is trickier. Yourself and Yours and Crosscurrent retain staunchly male points of view, using women as much as symbols as people unto themselves. Crosscurrent falls more into this predictable pattern of keeping the woman’s (or women’s) emotional lives at a distance to heighten the man’s uncertainty. Yourself and Yours retains the mystery while actually investing in the woman. She’s the focus of every scene she’s in, and not just from a voyeuristic standpoint. When two men she has been casually seeing realize they know each other from middle school, Hong keeps her increasing frustration and disinterest at the literal center of the frame, but seated towards the rear of its depth field. This imbalance allows the viewer to gradually notice her increasing boredom, rather than insist upon it, flattering our intelligence and acknowledging the extent to which the men have begun to ignore her. In a repeated set-up at a coffee shop, the camera sits on the same side of the table as the men who approach her, heightening our alignment with them while prioritizing our access to her reactions, which in turn distance us from the men. It’s a complex, multilayered approach to seemingly-straightforward visuals.
Crosscurrent, by comparison, presents its female character forever at a distance, often obscured by clothing, fog, light, or other elements. Yang and Lee’s set-ups are astonishingly beautiful, but are rather direct in how they approach their subject, allowing the editing to add mystery. Whereas Yourself and Yours piles on the narrative complications without really explaining anything, Crosscurrent spends far too long explaining its cultural heritage while obscuring the main narrative. The result has the seemingly-weightier film feeling lighter, the experience of watching it often breathtaking, but the effect quickly fading. Yourself and Yours, much funnier and seemingly breezy, really sticks around, its numerous complications and contradictions needling at the brain and refusing to settle on any one interpretation. Ironically, this is Yang’s first film in twelve years, while Hong has made at least one every year for the past eight, and one every two years for the ten before that. Something about reflexive creativity seems to spark ingenuity.