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Night and Day Difference

By John Magary

I love the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, but he annoys the crap out of scores of people -- and considering his unfortunately low profile in the United States, I do mean “scores.” Like Robert Altman or Tsai Ming-liang or Woody Allen, his films blend into one another, with a hushed merry-go-round of characters who seem more or less a bald reflection of their creator. No controversy to teach here -- this is Intelligent Design, straight up. Not to say that his films pump out the same EKG, but there is, on his part, a hesitancy to stretch one’s legs beyond familiar reflection, or even personal document. Patience with Hong depends on patience with the following things: clumsy misogyny, drunkenness, misguided love, misguided obsession, bad-idea sex, repetition, sluggishness, melancholy, confusion, narcotized will and lots of sleeping. The days burble by on the shoulders of a passive brand of bad judgment.

The films are a lot funnier than I’m making them sound.

High art: (L-R) Kim Young-ho and Park Eun-hye in Night and Day, screening today at the New York Film Festival

And his narratives are meticulous. This is romantic hyperbole, but it’s fun to write: Night and Day is Hong’s Moby Dick. His Ahab is Sungnam (Kim Young-ho), a perpetually bemused (and married) 40-something painter, who has escaped to Paris after getting caught smoking pot in Seoul. His white whale is Yujeong (Park Eun-hye), a suitably fogged art student roughly two decades south of Sungnam, whittling away her ex-pat art school days by plagiarizing other students’ paintings. What we see is a day-by-day log, more or less, of Sungnam’s time in Paris, broken up with date-specific title cards and the creeping second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. In place of whalers, we get tourists. In place of the ocean, we get the milky overcast skies of Paris. In place of single-minded obsession, we get... Actually, we get single-minded obsession. Sungnam takes his accidental exile as a chance to cast off the ties of adulthood and find himself, which, considering his age, will strike the viewer as either poignantly funny or gratingly pathetic.

Count me among the “poignantly funny” crowd. As someone who has experienced his own eight-month November of the soul abroad -- at a younger age, I hasten to admit -- the melancholy here feels true and painstakingly earned. Sungnam, who slouches into every bluntly staged scene like he’s just fallen out of bed, chases after Yujeong to the point of harassment, but as the film wears on, her pursed innocence starts to resemble lost opportunity. These are some aimless pinballs, making a go at the kind of romantic, untethered lifestyle that Paris virtually demands from its tasters. The core of the film is gauzy befuddlement, but chewing down to get there is, to my taste, an extremely engrossing experience.

Because this film lacks a distributor, and probably won’t snag one -- it is, after all, almost two and a half hours long, unforgivable in this climate for foreign art cinema but totally necessary if you’re tackling the Superhero Myth -- I highly recommend taking it in this afternoon at the Ziegfeld. Hong is a rare talent with a generous sense for the funny, boring, careless abysses in all of us.

John Magary is a New York-based filmmaker. His short film The Second Line is currently making the rounds.

Posted at October 4, 2008 11:49 AM

Comments (1)

I was delightfully surprised by this film.
The streets of Paris were visually satifying as were the relationships that he encounters. I enjoyed the dialog and felt the characters were realistic and fun to watch.

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