The wanderer: Hong Sang-Soo's "Night and Day" screens at YBCA.

'Night and Day:' Location, Location, Locution

Max Goldberg May 21, 2009

Hong Sang-soo’s latest unraveling of the South Korean male ego is set in the City of Lights, but location matters less than locution in Hong’s world of mutual misunderstanding. The writer-director’s uneasy comedies depend more on structural calibration and emotional wavering than disposable yucks, and if Night and Day isn’t so tightly wound as some of his earlier bifurcated work, it still has more designs on us than we on it. One may chuckle at leading buffoon Seong-nam’s (Kim Yeong-ho) hopeless stabs at conversation (he is the type of fellow who, caught off guard by a female conquest telling him she prefers women, blurts out, "I know, but why do you have it emphasize that?"), but we’re just as likely to be boggled by his idiocy, especially since the film’s naturalistic dramaturgy would seem to promise a conventional approach to character. Hong’s is a distinctly modernist take on callowness.

When we think of American equivalents for this vexed masculinity, we’re likely to conjure Judd Apatow’s slovenly bromancers or Neil LaBute’s unremitting monsters. Seong-nam is somewhere between and hence gives the lie to both: his thick, all-things-latent misogyny isn’t cute by any stretch, nor is his petulant womanizing the work of a Nietzschean egomaniac. He is captive to his own nincompoopery, feeling regret and romance genuinely, but with a vapidity that makes his maneuverings confounding. As a mathematical set of romantic missteps, Night and Day is the rare comedy which tugs at you the next day.

The bleary passage of days is intrinsic to the film’s narrative; title cards announce the passing dates of Seong-nam’s Paris sojourn. Instead of creating elliptical intrigue, this segmentation exfoliates the shrinking doldrums of expatriation with comic acuity, so that, for example, on the day of August 9, Seong-nam walks outside his guest house, looks down the Paris streets, and then retreats back into the house. He’s in Paris shirking a marijuana charge in South Korea, though he blandly asserts a special interest in Paris as a painter. Needless to say, we never see him at work, and his giant photorealist canvases of clouds suggest childlike guilelessness; we draw similar conclusions from his tendency to tote his sundries around Paris in plastic takeout bags. His voiceover too posits a paltry slush of mundane thoughts. "You would have been a general if you had been born long ago," Seong-nam’s pension remarks. In his own time, Seong-nam’s pride is the stuff of informal arm-wrestling contest.

When it comes to sex, Seong-nam flails between licentiousness and opprobrium. Taken alone, any one of his gaffes seems unfathomable; together, these vignettes have the licorice tang of a picaresque. He doesn’t recognize an ex-girlfriend on the street even when she presses him on it (she later tells him she had six abortions because of him); invites a conquest to a hotel room only to guiltily read her Bible verses; calls his wife back in South Korea for phone sex. The central figure of Night and Day is a triangle: Seong-nam meets two younger South Korean roommates studying art in Paris, ensuring many frustrating afternoons drinking and eating oysters. It’s a situation redolent of the New Wave, though sexual innuendo is more undertow than current in Night and Day. The endless flat light of summer afternoons dilates Seong-nam’s escapades in such a way that it only takes the lightest nudge towards politics or fantasy for Hong to send ripples through the film’s glossy surface.