One of South Korea’s most respected directors, Hong Sang-soo makes low key, finely-observed films that turn a cynical, antiseptic eye on modern relationships, typically focusing on the self-inflicted tribulations of befuddled and immature men. Although he often gets compared to the likes of Eric Rohmer, Woody Allen, or Albert Brooks, Hong’s uncomfortably clinical examinations of male narcissism and arrested development seem closer to how Stanely Kubrick might have observed one of Judd Apatow’s man-child protagonists.
Hong’s dry visual style and sparse, largely improvised dialogue make for films that are sometimes lethargic and meandering, and other times surprising in their unexpected emotional insight. His 2008 effort Night and Day, now available in the west on Region 1 DVD for the first time, is mostly the latter.
Night and Day covers three months in the life of Seong-nam (Kim Yeong-ho), a middle-aged painter from Seoul who gets busted for smoking pot and flees in fear to Paris. Away from his wife and ensconced in a cramped boarding house filled with strangers, Seong-nam spends his days drifting around the streets of Paris and his nights making teary, self-pitying phone calls to his wife back in Seoul. Although ostensibly Seong-nam is waiting for the heat to blow over back at home, it soon becomes clear that our meek, boyish protagonist is simply caught in the inertia of an aimless life.
When speaking to his wife he bemoans his situation, but before long we see that the lifestyle of responsibility-free limbo that he’s found for himself while on the lam is the perfect manifestation of his adolescent mindset. Allergic to decision-making or consequences of any kind, Seong-nam is content to sleep late and wander lazily from café to café, smoking endless cigarettes and eyeing pretty girls.
Inevitably, as his boredom gives way to restlessness and frustrated lust, he begins to haltingly chase after a series of women who cross his path. The first is an ex-lover living in Paris (Kim You-jin) whom he meets by happenstance, and the second is a flighty young art student named Yu-jeong (Park Eun-hye) whose stunted narcissism mirrors Seong-nam’s, although hers is slightly more defensible, being almost 20 years his junior. He pursues each woman with the halting awkwardness of a confused teenage boy, with only the dimmest understanding of the mystifying emotions and desires roiling inside him.
As a result Seong-nam is pulled from one extreme to another, sometimes charming those around him with brash overconfidence, sometimes breaking down in regular bouts of weepy self-flagellation, guiltily chastising himself for failing to temper his fleshly desires. Invariably, though, even the most basic insights elude Seong-nam, and time and again he obliviously pushes onward with one bad decision after another as soon as the sun rises on a new day.
Hong Sang-soo’s storytelling style marks him as something like Asia’s answer to Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismaki, eschewing anything resembling a traditional three-act narrative structure for stories that instead move at the fitful, unpredictable pace of real human relationships, often without obvious resolutions or morals. Night and Day emphasizes this even further with an episodic diary structure where each day is carefully noted by its own title card and usually represented by one or two scenes at the most.
Although the scenes get more dramatic as Seong-nam’s muddled relationships drag him increasingly out of his depth, early on these visual diary entries are mostly calm, quotidian moments from his listless routine—getting soaked in a rainstorm, or sharing a cigarette with a housemate. Hong’s light directorial touch combined with Kim’s gentle performance allow these scenes to serve as tiny, revealing little illustrations of character, and place Hong in the category of directors who are unafraid to back away and run the camera with no other aim than to simply observe characters being themselves.
Typically, Hong favors an immobile camera and eschews any visual flourishes whatsoever in favor of unbroken takes captured in simple, spartan medium-shots. This can sometimes give the feeling of a director observing his characters’ behavior in the same way a microbiologist might observe bacteria under a microscope. However, perhaps echoing his protagonist’s wandering eye and attention span, Hong’s detached gaze is occasionally broken in order to bookend scenes with quiet, poetic moments that often go unobserved by the onscreen characters—a wistful shot of passing clouds, or water carrying a leaf down into the gutter.
Still, as seen through Hong’s lens, Paris has never looked less glamorous or more anonymous—this isn’t Woody Allen’s bohemian dreamland or Scorcese’s clockwork snowglobe. Hong’s camera conspicuously avoids any quaint Gallic charm (or any landmarks at all, for that matter), and save for the occasional line of dialogue it’s remarkably easy to forget that 90 percent of the film takes place in one of the world’s great cities.
In the lead role, Kim Yeong-ho’s performance captures the perfect mix of boyish befuddlement and childish self-absorption. The combination of his trusting, open face perched atop his bulky frame gives the impression of an overgrown kid trapped in an adult’s body, and his immaturity is almost charming until his weak-willed manipulations begin to pile up on top of one another. It can’t be denied that at an unnecessarily-hefty 145 minutes the film inevitably loses steam and runs out of new things to show us—there’s a palpable point three-quarters of the way through when time spent with Seong-nam ceases to be rewarding and becomes something more like watching an exhausting friend repeat old patterns and mistakes without learning anything new.
Nevertheless, as a whole it’s a keen portrait of arrested development that’s almost painful in its sharpness, and emphasized by Hong’s unwavering refusal to look away or provide any relief. Together as actor and director, Hong and Kim create a character who embodies obtuse masculinity at its most clueless and self-absorbed, and the result is a slightly flawed but deeply personal film from a director with intriguingly original vision.