‘Night And Day’ screens as part of the U. of C.’s Doc Films ‘Korean New Wave’ series on Thursday, May 3rd at 7:00 P.M.
Hong Sang-soo’s Night And Day (Bam Gua Nat) (South Korea, 2008) will strike you as a pleasantly wry and straightforwardly amusing chronicle of an expatriate Korean man in Paris, even as it eventually dawns on you across the course of the film that he’s an almost complete asshole.
Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) has fled Korea, an opening title tells us, to avoid being arrested for using marijuana with a few visiting American college students (Korean drug laws are pretty harsh, but it’s an open question whether Sung-nam was genuinely justified in leaving his wife behind to avoid potential arrest, or whether it’s just a self-indulgent dodge). He’s a painter, and Paris seems as good a place as any to lay low for a while. His work, we learn, consists of photo-realistic renderings of clouds (which are effective, if facile, evocative images – or you can think of the subject matter as, truly, water vapor, a metaphor that gains relevance as the film progresses), but there isn’t a blank canvas or paint brush in sight once he arrives – for a painter in Paris, he sure isn’t spending any time painting. He encamps in a hostel run by the affable Mr. Jang (Kee Joo-bong) where a small clientele of other Koreans reside. Sung-nam also runs into an old girlfriend from ten years ago, Min-sun (Kim You-jin), and their fleeting conversations are little case studies in passive-aggressiveness and denial. Mr. Jang introduces him to a female painter studying at Beaux-Arts (L’École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts), Hyon-ju (Seo Min-jeong). But Sung-nam, while finding Hyon-ju to be friendly and agreeable, has far more amorous designs on her roommate, Yu-jeong (Park Eun-hye), another cute, but more mercurial, art student, whom he first encountered fleetingly with Min-sun (Min-sun’s opinion of her is low, which, of course, piques his interest). And so Sung-nam spends his days in Paris eating, drinking and flirting, walking and visiting museums, and insinuating himself into the small, young Korean community, while occasionally checking in with his wife to commiserate on how lonely and miserable he is.
For as much of a dawg as Sung-nam turns out to be, he’s a generally polite and deferential one. He shares special notice of Korean social rituals with Yu-jeong, always inquiring about the level of formality they should maintain concerning his older age and married status. And he’s always happy to pick up the drink tabs, even knowing how quickly his money is running out. His impulsive blurts of his lustful wishes are quickly followed by bows and apologies, but he’s obviously incorrigible. Hong relates Sung-nam’s story in very compact, efficiently framed, slow-burning episodic chunks, dated like diary entries, and often ends scenes abruptly at their most awkward moments. Hong’s style is very realistically narrative – there’s rarely a showy camera movement or contrasting visual statement across the grain of what he’s telling us. We only rarely catch glimpses of Paris-as-exotic-otherworld – a quick trip to the Musee d’Orsay, an occasional shot of the Eiffel Tower; we could just as easily be in Prague or Toronto or Philadelphia. But no matter where Sung-nam goes, there he is, wrapped in a shell of grown-up laid-back gentility and good manners disguising the irresponsible horndog fourteen-year-old it seems he’ll always be, enabled by women who, it turns out, can be just as dishonest in their own ways as he is.
Hong’s title, ‘Night And Day,’ evokes the swooning romanticism of Cole Porter, but it also points out the dilemma of Sung-nam’s dyed-in-the-wool cultural and sexual chauvinism vs. how the rest of the global, metrosexual world really works. It’s a very good, and very funny, film, but don’t be surprised to find some of your own human-natural faux-pas and baser inclinations reflected in Hong’s characters as well.