Man is split into three in Ha Ha Ha: the true, the false, and the film's hero, placed in the middle. To complicate matters, we are in the realm of South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, so these three are told two ways, as two friends recount their romantic adventures in a small port town, Tongyeong, without realizing they are each telling two sides of one bigger story. In black and white still photographs the two men—our hero, the unemployed filmmaker Munkyung (Kim Sangkyung), and film critic friend Jungshik (Yu Jungshik)—meet over drinks and trade "a sip for a memory." What unfolds is far from alternate impressions or points of view of a situation, but rather a complimentary rhythm that alternates between the men and their romantic interests to stage a moral and existential quest in the film’s unique location.
While Hong is not as ambitious as Eric Rohmer in terms of casually but richly and intrinsically documenting the place and social mileau of where his films take place, Ha Ha Ha’s location defines the story and action. Jungshik (The True) is with his mistress visiting the town, which holds him in limbo as he vacillates between his dedication to her and his wife and child back home—his test is one of action and fidelity. Hong’s structuralism reveals itself in Jungshik and his poet friend, the third male character (The False), who is the opposite of the critic, a carefree womanizer who is absolutely casual with his relationships. Between them is Munkyung, who is both The Hero and the typical Hong hero: a man bumbling through attempts to reconcile a desire to live a proper, dedicated life, and a desire, for, well, you know. So we get three triangles, three men each with three women, some shared (Munkyung is after the poet’s girl, Junshik is attracted to the poet’s fling), some not, some characters, some not (Junshik’s wife is absent, the poet’s fling gets only a few words). But the orbital relationships are just Hong’s way, and it really isn’t as complicated as the romantic mathematics of the plot sound, as Hong has moved away from overtly structural filmmaking. Ha Ha Ha is instead complicated in terms of wresting out each man’s honesty to others and to themselves, which well explains the passion, vascillation, and exasperation the women exhibit in the face of someone like Munkyung, who can be sincere one moment and completely undercut his words with his actions the next moment.
The gravitational force for the human orbits is the town itself, with two visiting men and their hotels opening up possibilities of rendezvous, its port an exit and also an invitation, a place in flux where some are there to visit, some are there to leave, the people who live there looking for one thing, the people just stopping by, something else. We get a good taste of the hills and the wind, the temple and its local heroes—two kinds of men all wish they could be in one: an admiral and a poet—the port around which everyone walks, flanked by restaurants and hotels and for easy drinking and sex. But beyond the simple documentary study of the geography, we understand the power of location, the way a specific place interacts with, partly determines, and certainly becomes a part of its inhabitants and its visitors lives, goals, and actions. The bifurcated storytelling that frames the film ultimately tells us less about our human characters, with their comical bumblings and momentary heartfelt declarations, and more about how human character is informed by its surroundings.