Night and Day (Hong Sangsoo, 2008)

The Hong hero, not so young anymore, finds himself alone in Paris. A quick intertitle informs us that this man, Seongnam (played by Kim Youngho), was at a party with some exchange students where marijuana was being consumed. Someone ratted him out to the police (pot smoking being apparently a very serious crime in Korea) and so he hopped the first flight out of the country. He holes up in a hostel and waits, either for the heat to die down or his wife to pack up everything and move to France with him. In the meantime, he drinks, arm wrestles, wanders the streets and pursues three women to varying degrees. All Korean woman, for this is a Paris occupied entirely by Koreans, much like Wheels on Meals found a Barcelona where everyone spoke Cantonese. The title could be a Cole Porter reference, or maybe an homage to Chantal Akerman, or maybe it comes from the film’s peculiar sense of exile (it’s night in Paris when he calls home to his wife, daytime for her in Seoul), the estrangement of being on the opposite side of the world, an in-betweenness, a suspension of life. More probably it’s all of these and more, a clue to the doubling nature of Hong’s plots and characters, everything and its opposite, two sides negating each other yet impossibly coexisting.

Structured diary-style with intertitles stating the date (his exile lasts from August 8 until October 10), Night and Day builds on the realistic plotting of Woman on the Beach, where the repetitions and coincidences of Seongnam’s life are built into the everyday flow of events and relationships, rather than externally imposed by a supernatural structure, as in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Tale of Cinema, or many later Hongs. Or maybe not, there’s a shiftiness to the narrative that goes a step beyond Beach’s realism, pointedly in two explicitly-marked dream sequences. There’s an air of surreality about it that makes one wonder exactly how many of Seongnam’s days were actually dreamt. But, taking the film at face value, after a brief opening act wherein Seongnam meets, drinks with, and then turns down sexual advances from an old girlfriend, the bulk of the film follows his pursuit of a young Beaux-Arts student named Yoojeong, played by Park Eunhye. He quickly falls for her, for the usual Hongian reasons (innocence, purity, sexy feet — subject of the film’s first deadpan dream sequence), but she turns him down because he’s married. Eventually, he grows an evil goatee and starts berating her, which in the twisted logic of masculinity, actually works for him and the two begin an affair. Around this time, he learns from another art student that she in fact plagiarized all her work and has been kicked out of the school.

It’s telling, however, that while these doubts about Yoojeong’s character only occur to Seongnam after he’s made out with her, they only sleep together after he’s learned of her moral unreliability. Where before she’d been his kind of ideal woman (feeding homeless people, considerate of her roommate (who had a little crush on Seongnam) and his wife). But when he decides to believe she’s a fraud, then sex is only a trip to Deauville away. It’s a fairly simple but ingeniously presented Madonna/whore complex. One further complicated when, after finally returning home (his wife tricks him by telling him that she’s pregnant, a ruse he claims to find quite admirable), he has a second(?), much longer dream. In this one he’s going to visit his now ex-wife, bringing along his new wife, the young art student who claimed that Yoojeong stole her work. They decide to bring the ex a vase as a present, but the girl accidentally drops it on the way and it shatters, leading to a violent haranguing from Seongnam, another innocent proven to be imperfect. His wife angrily wakes him up: having called out another woman’s name in a dream she has deduced the truth of his infidelity (“You’re not some sex addict, are you?”) He insists it was all a dream and swears never to leave again, never to leave her alone. She chooses to believe him, for now.