‘We can’t easily tell night from day during the summers here,” observes one character early on in Hong Sang-soo’s Paris-set Night and Day—a nearly throwaway line that circumscribes the sense of physical and spiritual dislocation felt by the film’s protagonist. Like most of the director’s leading men, Kim Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) is a hangdog, self-absorbed, soju-guzzling Hong alter ego—a fortyish Korean artist who flees to the City of Lights after an episode of recreational drug use leads him to believe he is under police investigation. There, he rents a room in a crowded boarding house and resolves to lay low until he can safely return home to his wife, Sung-in (Hwang Su-jeong), or else find a way to bring her to France. But resolutions aside, it isn’t long before Sung-nam finds himself navigating Hong’s trademark gauntlet of awkward seductions, casual betrayals, and ghosts of girlfriends past.
Given his reputation, to quote J. Hoberman, as “the most Frenchified of contemporary Korean directors,” as well as his regular appearances in Cannes, it may have been inevitable that Hong would come to make a film in France. He seems to feel right at home there, too, capturing life in a thriving expat artist community with the same eye for haphazard courtship rituals and ear for pompous intellectual posturing he brought to the likes of Woman Is the Future of Man and Woman on the Beach. That emphasis on dialogue, combined with an unapologetically stationary camera, gives Hong’s work a casual, “artless” façade that belies his carefully plotted, novelistic structure—of which Night and Day may be the most ambitious to date.
On a Paris street, Sung-nam encounters Min-sun (Kim You-jin), a former flame whom he initially fails to recognize, now married herself but still happy to abscond with her ex to a hotel for the afternoon. They, in turn, bump into the coquettish Yoo-jung (Park Eun-hye), a Beaux-Arts painting student whom Min-sun criticizes for being “too realistic and stingy.” Sung-nam replies, “Women don’t need to be realistic,” though by this point, he is already in hot pursuit, deflecting the overtures of Yoo-jung’s roommate while processing mixed signals from his latest object of desire. Structured as a series of diary entries, the film has an episodic flow: in between extramarital dalliances (which are more like lunges), Sung-nam pleads for his wife to masturbate to him over the phone, drunkenly insults a visiting North Korean student at a party, and even turns to the Bible for answers—only to find that there are none. Some of it is hilarious, some sad, all filtered through Hong’s inimitably wry take on the unbearable lightness of being . . . himself.
Night and Day was commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay as part of the same short-lived filmmaking initiative that also brought us Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon and Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours—and while the three films share a loose dialogue about the work of artists, and each features a cameo for the venerable museum, their formal strategies could scarcely be more different. Whereas Hou tilted his poetic camera toward the Parisian skies, following his enchanted crimson orb across the city’s rooftops, Hong repeatedly points his at the ground, filming refuse as it’s hosed down gutters, a baby bird fallen from its nest (the closest the movie comes to overt symbolism), and other signs of impermanence. Finally, he arrives at a masterfully deployed bit of third-act rug-pulling so unexpected that it may be Hong’s way of saying we are all stumbling toward an uncertain horizon.