Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Oct 04, 2008 12:56 pm 
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A Korean lost in Paris

Hong Sang-soo, whose films have been frequently featured at the New York Film Festival, weaves tales of men and women wandering in and out of relationships and doing a lot of talking about them. He's a kind of South Korean Eric Rohmer, except that his men and women aren't quite as ostentatiously presentable as Rohmer's and his men have an (often gently satirized) gauche sense of macho entitlement that's more Korean than French. A debt to the New Wave is nonetheless there, but Hong hasn't ever actually sent his characters to Paris as Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiau-hsien have--till now.

The protagonist of Night and Day/Bam gua nat, Sung-nam (Kim Yung-ho), is a 40-something Seoul painter of cloudy landscapes who smokes pot with some American visitors to Korea. One of them gets caught, and mentions Sung-nam's name, and he has fled abruptly to Paris. The film unreels as a day-to-day account of his sojourn, which includes involvement with a bunch of fellow countrymen and in particular several attractive younger women. Sung-nam being a rather naive, un-suave, and clueless person of decidedly rumpled good looks, his success with the other sex is a little surprising, but he's a typical Hong Sang-Soo male. He knows not a word of French, and is uncomfortable trying to buy a condom in a pharmacy, an inconvenience that leads to others.

What propels Night and Day most of the way is its sense of specificity and anecdotal observation. Sung-nam stays at a kind of Korean hostel presided over by a diminutive older man, Mr. Jang (Go Ki-bong), who offers Sung-nam comfort at moments of stress. Sung-nam drifts from day to day at first, just hanging out and meeting some of the other Koreans in Paris, who tend to all know each other--and reading a Bible, which happens to be there and which he says he takes just as a story. Notably he runs across Min-sun (Kim Yu-jin), whom he runs after, knowing she looks familiar. Absurdly, he's forgotten that he was in a passionate affair with Min-sun years ago. She's not living in Paris and married to a Frenchman. She's not at all pleased with Sung-nam's memory lapse, but nonetheless willing to talk to him.

Eventually Sung-nam takes Min-sun to a hotel room where she takes a shower and is ready to have sex, when he begins quoting from the Bible and expresses misgivings.

Meanwhile Sung-nam calls his wife in Seoul frequently, and they both declare how much they miss each other. She says she'll ask his mother to give her money so she can come and stay with him. There is an air of mutual desperation about their conversations, but above all he seems in limbo, unable to make a decision.

Mr. Jang introduces Sung-nam to a Beaux Arts student named Hyun-ju (Seo Minjeong), but he is more interested in her thinner and prettier roommate, Yu-jung (Park Yun-hye). Sung-nam is comically inept and forward with these women, hanging around and forcing himself upon them, and yet Yu-jung succombs, and Sung-nam takes her to Deauville (their second trip, but this time without Hyun-ju). Once again as in Hong's Woman on the Beach there are conversations on a cold empty stretch of sand resort beach, only it's actually early October, and Sung-nam never has to wear anything but shirtsleeves. And essentially again it's a shy-aggressive man torn between two women.

Sung-nam also is at a dinner where he naively is shocked that one person is from North Korea. He is confrontational, and as a result is forced to beat a hasty retreat. He also meets the best known Korean artist living and practicing in Paris, and feels ashamed at having suspended his own career with this sojourn. The movie's scenes often end with some mild debacle or a sudden departure, usually with mildly comic effect. At the same time that Sung-nam's various prospects for a Paris love-life, he seems (in his phone conversations with his wife) to be all the more filled with a sense of desperation and confusion; it's as if he's increasingly aware that he's living the kind of Paris adventure a young Asian artist might better have had at 20 or 30 instead of 45, and this isn't going to work. Eventually surprise news leads Sung-nam to return to Korea and his wife (Hwang Su-jung), and he faces the consequences of the pot incident and, not without some bumps along the way, begins to resume his life.

The recurrent theme from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony gives a surprise note of European high culture and perhaps further irony, but it seems pushed a little too hard.

Night and Day remains interesting and textured as Hong Sang-soo's other films, but at 144 minutes it's longer than it has any justification for being, and the touristic aspect and an obtrusive use of the zoom lens seem out of character. Every scene is interesting, but they go in a few too many directions, and pursue too many strands. Tightening up and paring down would have added significantly to quality. It's as if Hong was distracted by the European sojourn himself. Maybe the director would do better to stay at home next time. Nonetheless Hong is an auteur well worth keeping track of. NYFF--no US release pending. It opened in Paris in July--along with Woman on the Beach--and was reviewed at the Berlinale earlier in the year.

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