by Michael Joshua Rowin
Night and Day
Dir. Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, IFC Films
Hong Sang-sooâ€™s latest, Night and Day, opens by misdirecting its audience with a credit sequence scored to the allegretto movement of Beethovenâ€™s Symphony No. 7 (a classical favorite usually employed more obviously in movie trailers, as in The Fall earlier this year). Itâ€™s an ominously building epic the exact opposite in tone and thrust to Hongâ€™s quiet, anti-momentum approach to cinema, but that the director returns to No. 7 throughout Night and Day clues us into the surging importance he attaches to what at first glance appears to be the rather ordinary tale of Sung-nam (Yeong-ho Kim), a struggling middle-aged painter who escapes his dead-end life in Korea for a new one in Paris. Sung-namâ€™s on the lam for pot possession, but any hopes the City of Lights will be a relaxing safe haven are instantly put to rest in the filmâ€™s first exchange, in which a Frenchman threateningly stares at Sung-nam after bumming a cigarette and warns him to be careful. Of what, heâ€™s never told.
Night and Day is replete with such disorienting, awkward moments, the art of which Hong Sang-soo certainly seems to have mastered. Thereâ€™s a great scene, for instance, where Sung-nam challenges the same North Korean he had insulted previously to a questionably friendly arm wrestling match. In this case, disorientation and awkwardness stem directly, but subtly, from the distraught manhood of the lead character. Like the male protagonists of Woman Is the Future of Man and Woman on the Beach, Sung-nam embodies Hong Sang-sooâ€™s concept of male vanity, ineptness, hypocrisy, and dormant maturity. Having left behind in Korea a wife to whom he genuinely cries over the phone, Sung-nam seems to want to start anew in a strange country where he canâ€™t speak the language, but his attempts to act accordingly are often conniving half-measures. He runs into Min-sun (Kim Yu-jin), an old girlfriend now unhappily wed to a Frenchman, and completely misrecognizes her, is confronted with her admission to have had no less than six abortions while they were together, and then, after some drunken flirting (another Hong Sang-soo specialty), fails to follow through on a tryst by pompously quoting the bible, a book with which heâ€™s only started to become familiar (earlier he says he reads it out of mere curiosity, as if it were history). But Sung-nam doesnâ€™t resist temptation because itâ€™s the right thing to do, he resists temptation, so he explains, because itâ€™s â€śpractical.â€ť
Sung-namâ€™s motives arenâ€™t bad, theyâ€™re just confused. Once Min-sun is abandoned, Sung-nam befriends two art students, Hyun-joo (Seo Min-jung) and Yu-jeong (Park Eunhye). Sung-nam falls in love with the latter, inciting a triangle of jealousy and hesitatingly approached courtship that comes to a head during a trip to the beach, the location where the director has so beautifully in the past set his collisions of ego. The older manâ€™s game plan is to tiptoe around expressing his affection until he eventually insults the younger woman in a strange outburst that actually leads to romance. But the affair is short lived. As a sign of the dishonesty to come, Sung-nam discovers Yu-jeong to be a phony (her sketches that so impress him are all plagiarized), and soon Sung-nam is lying to her about the pregnancy of his wife (he invents an ailing mother) that is forcing him to return to Korea. Yu-jeong herself, meanwhile, might very well be pregnant, resulting from an impulsive decision on Sung-namâ€™s part to not use a condom because he was too embarrassed to buy one at the store. Feigned pride and honest lustâ€”the filmmakerâ€™s male characters in a nutshell.
Hong Sang-sooâ€™s writing is superb at breaking time and events down into a haphazard calendar of episodes that build on each other rather than leading into a one-way street of linear, simplistic answers. In this sense, his attitude toward his characters is difficult to discern. Gratuitous and ambiguous details accumulate symbolic weight in Night and Day so that their function can be interpreted either as wry commentaryâ€”for instance, a shot of a puddle floating down the side of a street and picking up dog shit while on its course mocks a later shot of Sung-nam gently launching a paper boat on a street puddleâ€”or else the outward manifestation of the charactersâ€™ psychological and spiritual mysteries. The second possibility is portended not just by the Beethoven (in contrast to the light score of Woman on the Beach) but also the way Courbetâ€™s â€śThe Origin of the Worldâ€ťâ€”the possibly woman-fearing Sung-nam doesnâ€™t care for the title and wonders if it makes his female viewing partner feel ashamedâ€”is evoked in the naked feet of Yu-jeong that stick out from her bed and enrapture Sung-nam, or how Sung-namâ€™s initially facetious quoting of the bible is placed in a new light when his church visit is emphasized by one of the directorâ€™s trademark zoom-ins, this time of a stained-glass portrait of a monk surrounded by birds (earlier on Sung-nam unintentionally saves a bird from falling to its death). As if to offset what to Hong Sang-soo is a relatively new heavy visual language, voice-over asides allow us entry into a place few movies ventureâ€”a characterâ€™s most mundane thoughts. Along with Sung-namâ€™s pondering of how a beautiful woman is a â€śmiracle from out of ordinary life,â€ť weâ€™re as likely to hear him comment to himself about a restaurantâ€™s expensive but terrible food or else simply say about a passerby, â€śHer perfume is too strong.â€ť
What does it all add up to? In Night and Dayâ€™s final scene the director throws a curveball by offering an uncharacteristic dream sequence. As with BuĂ±uel, the sequence is all the more startling for looking like everything else Hong Sang-soo has capturedâ€”slow, long take master shotsâ€”except for one or two jarring moments, such as Sung-nam knighting yet another new girlfriend by intoning, â€śIf youâ€™re understanding you can overcome anything,â€ť or a pig pushing up against the window of a steam bath. The film ends with Sung-namâ€™s wife Han Seong-in (Hwang Soo-jeong) chiding him for chanting some elseâ€™s name in his sleep. Sung-nam, whoâ€™s been tricked back to Korea by his own wife, protests that he loves her. And the truth might be that heâ€™s right. He does love her, though he still might not know what love is. Thereâ€™s an eerie feeling in Night and Day similar to that of Agnes Vardaâ€™s Le Bonheurâ€”that human beings can be completely disposable and replaceable to some people, though this doesnâ€™t necessarily mean these people are unfeeling. Sung-nam paints clouds, and the last shot is a tilt up to a false empyrean above the artist and wifeâ€™s bed. The dream, the painting, and the filmâ€™s title, which refers to the Parisian firmament where night can often be mistaken for day and vice versa: all point in the direction not of Sung-namâ€™s guilt for loving more than one woman, but his mixed-up compulsion to do so in order that one person may easily take the place of anotherâ€”just like one sky, real or artificial, can easily substitute for anotherâ€”as long as they fulfill his needs. Expanding and enriching his themes with layered motifs and images, filming in a straightforward style that makes the simplest pan or zoom an exclamation mark, Hong Sang-soo has never more disarmingly realized his bleak, sardonic view of male desire than in Night and Day.