Credit: Neugso Film Co. all rights reserved
by Morris Yang Featured Film

Regardless of Us — Yoo Heong-jun [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 24, 2023

Premiering in Berlinale Forum, a space reserved for “test[ing] the boundaries of convention,” Yoo Heong-jun’s Regardless of Us will inevitably elicit comparisons with the works of Hong Sang-soo by virtue of its nationality and thematic concerns. But there’s probably more than meets the eye here, for one is likelier — Hong-mania aside — to encounter the overt shape-shifting experimentation favored by, and present in, such films as Laura Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen or Nicolás Pereda’s Fauna. Regardless of Us, like many a Hong outing, centers itself around both an actress and the nature of acting, but its piercing originality is derived less from Hong’s minimalist compositions than it draws from an overt two-act structure separating — or perhaps conjoining and conflating — reality and fiction. Yoo’s film is indeed minimalist in design too, although this arguably serves as a conduit for his exploration of how we compartmentalize and construct the world around us, along with our identities within it.

A middle-aged actress, Hwa-ryeong (Cho Hyunjin), lays in hospital recovering from a stroke, while her fellow cast members attend the premiere of their latest film. The film’s producer, a somewhat peevish woman, comes to visit with a basket of flowers. She and Hwa-ryeong attempt to reconstruct the film’s premise together, the latter having lost all recollection of it: a retired actress, played by Hwa-ryeong, leaves her husband and daughter while she drives out of town to attempt suicide. In this scenario — a “useless story of human beings,” as the producer puts it — mother and daughter are estranged; the mother forsakes, in the daughter’s eyes, her family for the sake of her career, whereas the daughter starts to develop an obsessive longing for her own boyfriend.

The producer departs, and more of Hwa-ryeong’s colleagues take turns trickling into her ward, conveying news, confessing emotions, and challenging her film’s initial blueprint. The actress playing her daughter arrives, followed by the film’s director later at night, before two actors — her persona’s partner and daughter’s boyfriend — call on her belatedly, fresh from the film’s afterparty. There is a curious sense of absolution being sought here, a final purgatorial embrace between living and dead, which Yoo frustratingly hints at through his claustrophobic set-ups and medium-shots. “I have suffered from always feeling guilty towards you, but now, I feel like I can come clean and tell you everything,” her younger co-star writes in a letter she delivers, but isn’t quite read or addressed during their meeting.

Before these ambiguities are tied up, however, Regardless of Us pivots into twilit, amorphous territory. We appear to be witnessing the narrativization of all that came before, of Hwa-ryeong’s filmic narrative playing out before our eyes, much in the vein of Pereda’s wryly absurd examination of Hollywood’s narco tropes. There is a catch to these proceedings: two parallel interpretations of the film’s plot are offered by the cast, and both are represented, interspersed, on our screen. Like the exchange between Elizabeth and Alma in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, repeated twice in its entirety from both characters’ points-of-view, Regardless of Us boldly experiments with the notion of doubling, not as schizophrenic caricature, but as precisely the disjunction between subjective and objective, living and observing, fiction and reality that the film demarcates with its subtle attention to physical space. The backstreets outside the (unseen) hospital are observed with both static and panning shots, a choreographic trick that, despite its incessant presence, raises the uncanny question of just how well we recognize the world as fashioned through language, testimony, and the imagination.

The film’s second half is more vividly rendered as dream logic, a potentially interminable liminal zone through which social and actor cues, as well as narrative intricacies are revealed and refuted in equal measure, to no particular end. But a measured and assured formalism envelops this logic, recalling ironically enough Hong’s very own in water (screening in the adjacent Encounters sidebar). Where in water literally loses focus only to find it in the very act of image- and meaning-making, Regardless of Us observes, with no timid disposition, the dynamic tensions and contradictions inherent in the act of socialization, whether among individuals or mediated through the silver screen. All that is social is to some degree performed, and our lived reality never sidesteps performance or theatricality. As Slavoj Žižek observes in his monograph on Krzysztof Kieślowski, “the ultimate achievement of film art is not to recreate reality within the narrative fiction, to seduce us into (mis)taking a fiction for reality, but, on the contrary, to make us discern the fictional aspect of reality itself, to experience reality itself as a fiction.” With Regardless of Us, Yoo has crafted an intelligent and affecting exegesis of filmmaking itself.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.