The disappointment educed by Like You Know It All is of a qualified sort. It’s not that Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s latest bifurcated drama about a film director who drinks too much and is short on insight into women, life, and himself is a failure. In fact, in many respects, it’s one of his looser, messier, funnier efforts. The problem, rather, is one of familiarity: a repetition of motifs, structure, and thematic concerns that increasingly makes the director’s self-conscious inquiries into his own hang-ups and shortcomings (and confused masculinity as a whole) feel like a pony’s one trick. Whereas his prior Night and Day’s rawness made his perennial examination into screwed-up male behavior invigorating, here the more laidback, reserved, wryly comical tone heightens the nagging feeling that Hong has run out of novel things to say and is thus now content to lackadaisically repeat himself. And, furthermore, all while having his on-screen surrogate—director Ku (Kim Tae-woo), an art-house hit whose films are impenetrable, disturbing, and generally not profitable—deflect those very criticisms by stating that he doesn’t know how to make films about anyone but himself.
Perhaps this is merely viewing Like You Know through too much of an auteurist prism, as Hong’s film would likely strike fresh eyes as an assured, deadpan depiction of social and identity crises, all refracted through an autobiographical lens. Certainly, Kim’s portrait of Ku, a somewhat jerky (if still relatively endearing) individual whose mouth seems hardwired to emit the most inappropriate responses for a given situation, is superbly understated, eliciting comedy-of-discomfort cringes from innocuous comments and his embarrassed, sheepish reactions. Hong’s direction beautifully melds with Kim’s performance in that it too uses small, graceful gestures to convey barely suppressed emotional uneasiness. But for all its perfectly timed mini-zooms and sudden pans away from characters to nature vistas (or a lone frog swimming in a pool), the film feels at once aesthetically poised and yet narratively untidy. Still, at least during its early going, that dissonance proves a welcome relief, creating some much needed friction and unpredictability to a story that feels a bit too trademark Hong.
As the director begins establishing mirror-image elements across his diptych, however, the been-here, done-that impression becomes an unavoidable irritation. Like You Know’s first half finds Ku serving as a judge at the Jecheon film festival, where he meets up with an old friend, visits the guy’s rural home, and has a tumultuous encounter with his wife, all while (in one of the film’s insider-baseball jokes) skipping or falling asleep during the fest’s screenings. That same general sequence of events is repeated in the film’s second half, set 12 days later, when Ku visits Jeju Island to speak to a film class.
Yet unlike in Hong’s prior work, the dualities that crop up (a letter from a woman, a drunken night out with a past acquaintance) don’t resonate as complementary pieces of a puzzle so much as just mundane, arbitrary repetitions. While Ku may be less off-putting than some of Hong’s prior protagonists, it’s hard to feel that’s much of an improvement, and, in the end, the character’s clumsy navigation of romantic and friendly relationships still feels like regurgitation. No doubt Like You Know articulates its tried-and-true ideas about life and love with a dash of authentic unruliness and consistent, refreshing humor, but it nonetheless also plays like a smart joke told one too many times.
Like You Know It All will play on March 2 and 3 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.