Double Life

10.22.09

Hong Sang-soo, Night and Day, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 144 minutes.


AT FIRST BLUSH a routine tale of the infantile adult male struggling to overcome a repressed libido, Hong Sang-soo’s aptly titled Night and Day (2008) slowly strays from its surface pleasures to embark on a far more nuanced study of romance, social norms, and identity. By day, Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) is an expat South Korean artist living in Paris. Forced to flee his home and wife due to a marijuana bust, he finds himself a stranger in a strange land, often wandering the streets of France alone or in the company of Hyeon-ju (Seo Min-jeong) and Yu-jeong (Park Eun-hye)—two young and flirty art students who have captured his fancy.

Much as Judd Apatow uses boorish protagonists to spoof the social conventions of dating and monogamy, Hong uses Sung-nam’s disorientation as a lens through which he can distill courtship to its most primal urges. Without the familiar etiquette, or gender roles, of Korean culture, Sung-nam flounders as a suitor, fumbling when it comes to such basics as greetings, small talk, and seduction. He turns crude after drinking too much beer, ruins Korean dinner parties by preaching about North Korean politics, and fails repeatedly in his attempts to persuade his dinner partners to join him in the bedroom. His consternation is visible. For their parts, Hyeon-ju and Yu-jeong seem equally uncertain of how to proceed in this foreign setting, flirt without being forceful, and display interest while still playing hard to get. On a day trip away from the city, the girls’ anxieties reach a boiling point. Lost in rural France and frustrated, they both break down—an impotent Sung-nam frets in the backseat, eager but unable to help them find their way.

Stripping his film of all stylistic flourishes, Hong gives this romantic tit-for-tat a naturalistic veneer. And by abandoning all music and most close-ups, Night and Day becomes a detached, voyeuristic glimpse of three timid people working themselves up into a regular sexual frenzy. At night, Hong taps an even more compelling theme. Each evening, after playing nice with the girls, Sung-nam returns home to his boardinghouse to call his wife, still trapped in Seoul. Both speak of loneliness and longing; Sung-nam breaks down in tears, even as he neglects to tell her about his new love interests. This appears to be the real Sung-nam, sad and self-loathing—which makes it all the more shocking when he finally makes the return trip home. Back on the streets of South Korea, talking not to giggly coeds but to his measured wife, Sung-nam’s mannerisms shift from sweet and innocent to arrogant and irritable. There’s a love story here—two in fact—but in Sung-nam’s journey back, Hong proves less than entirely invested in dramas of love or sex. He has larger questions in mind: What makes us who we are? And how much say do we have in the matter?

S. James Snyder

Night and Day screens October 23–29 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.