“Why don’t you admit you don’t know it all? It’s hard to get someone’s heart, right?”
This was the first Hong Sangsoo movie I ever saw, at the Vancouver Film Festival in 2009, which is pretty much the ideal setting for a Hong movie about life during a film festival. Kim Taewoo plays a director named Goo Kyeongnam who has been invited to serve on the jury of a small festival in Jecheon. He hangs out with his fellow jury members in the usual Hongian manner: drinking, trading awkward compliments, sleeping through screenings. The rivalries between Goo and the rival directors and critics in the group are hilarious, all passive aggressive insults and arm-wrestling contests. Eventually, Goo wanders off from the festival altogether, having run into an old friend and business partner. They go drinking and end up back at his house, in the country, where Goo obnoxiously insults the friend’s young wife, played by Jung Yoomi in her first Hong role with a wide-eyed innocence that is very different from the wise and frustrated women she’ll play in several later films. There’s a dream sequence where the friend suddenly dies and Goo comforts Jung and the two promise to be together forever. After Goo wakes up, hung over, he hears the friend snoring and Jung showering, but then Hong abruptly cuts away. What happened next we don’t know, but later when Goo returns to the house, Jung freaks out and the friend throws a rock at him, so we can bet he did something pretty bad, or at least Jung thinks he did. Returning to the festival, and deciding to leave early and just watch the films on DVD, Goo is told by the festival director (Uhm Ji-won) that she was raped by an older director after Goo and everyone else left her alone with the man in the hotel room they were all drinking in together. It’s an extremely upsetting burst of reality into what had been a dark but essentially goofy comedy. Goo doesn’t know what to do with this information and neither do we.
The second half of the film begins a short time later, as director Goo is visiting a college where he will present a film to a class and do a Q & A (the first of many great confrontational Q & A sessions in the Hong oeuvre). The professor who invited him is played by Yoo Junsang, making his first appearance in a Hong film (how weird is it that both Yoo and Jung, who will be so central to the next phase of Hong’s career, started working with him in the same film?) After class, Goo goes drinking with the professor and several of his students, along with an old friend, an artist Goo much admires. The next day, he goes to the artist’s house, where he meets his much younger wife, Soon (Go Hyunjung, the eponymous woman in Woman on the Beach and the photographer from the end of The Day He Arrives) who just happens to be a woman Goo had proposed to years before (“I was honored that she considered the request for a whole day,” he tells us in poignant voiceover). Goo hangs out with them for awhile, eats some soup and runs to the beach. The next day, with the artist leaving town, he returns to the house and he and Soon sleep together, a tryst interrupted by a nosy neighbor.
Like You Know It All is an extremely uneasy film, the funniest movie Hong had made to that point, with the mixture of comedy of manners, biting satire, and dark humor that is extremely volatile, especially when paired with raw emotional outbursts and some of the most wistful, lyrical passages of Hong’s career. Kim Taewoo brings an earnest neediness to the Hong hero, similar to Lee Seongyun’s version of the character, but weaker and with less unearned confidence to mask his insecurities. The rhymes between the two sections are more comic than cosmic (everyone is late because they had to pick up bread, as if that is a normal thing), lines and situations repeat themselves with slight variations, but more as a matter of course rather than an expression of a constructed reality. Life is just like that. We don’t know why.