Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Night and Day

English Title: Night and Day
Korean Title: 밤과 낮/Bam-goa Nat
Premiere Date: February 12, 2008
U.S. Release Year: 2009
Festival: Berlin
Film Number: 8
First Viewing Number: 23
First Viewing Date: October 13, 2019
Viewing Number: 2
Ranking (at beginning of run): 3
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 8
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 26
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 3
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 144 minutes (1st longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Linear with date title cards, some time jumps
Recurring Actors: Kim Yeong-ho (first appearance), Lee Sun-kyun (first appearance), Gi Ju-bong (first appearance)
Season: Summer (August 8) – Fall (October 12)
Weather: Sunny, cloudy, rain
Alcohol: Red wine, soju, white wine, Heineken beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, tea, water, Coca-Cola, orange juice
Food: Oysters, kimchi soup, charcuterie, bread, seafood tofu soup, kimchi pancake, sandwich, dakjuk, banchan, chips, croissants, gum, pear
Drinking Scenes: 4
Creative People: Painters, film set workers
Academia: Painting students
Vacation: 2
Dream Sequences: 2
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 5
Family: Husband-wife
Vehicle Scenes: 1
Crying Scenes: 5
Number of Shots: 135
Number of Zooms: 29 out, 42 in
Music Style: Symphony No. 7 (Beethoven)
Title Background: Gray burlap
Voiceover: Yes

Night and Day, the first Hong I consider to be a bona fide masterpiece (admittedly a traditional Sallittist opinion), acts as both a synthesis of and a decided break with what came before it, a milestone that he hasn’t really tried to match. The most obvious difference is its length, Hong’s only film to come within striking distance of two and a half hours. But in many ways, at least for me, it’s possibly the lightest film he’s made yet in terms of its progression; this can definitely be attributed to the Rohmerian structure (more on that later), which cuts up the film so as to interrupt cause-and-effect, letting the viewer absorb the feeling of perhaps his ultimate hang-out film. At the same time, there’s just something so pleasing about this. I didn’t necessarily remember this as his funniest film, but it’s definitely a top contender; while it still has its fair share of harrowing moments, this is just chock-full of priceless moments, stemming from the premise and setting itself.

Night and Day also marks two enormous steps forward towards the Hong identity most commonly known until recently — along with a return from his 2007 year off, the last year that Hong didn’t premiere a feature in for more than a decade. As a side note, I had been thinking of Hong in a strictly early and late period (or first and second half) manner, but Sean Gilman recently brought up to me the idea that his current career can be divided into three parts: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well to Woman on the Beach, Night and Day to Hill of Freedom, and Right Now, Wrong Then to the present, with porous boundaries in between.

In this respect, there’s few switches that Hong’s ever had as decisive as his first use of digital to shoot Night and Day, never returning to film again. Truthfully, there doesn’t seem to have been a substantial shift in filming technique; there are no extended takes that film wouldn’t have been executable on a reel, and the approach to panning and zooming has stayed fairly consistent, though he appears to use auto-focus throughout. But part of me wonders whether the longer runtime is in fact a byproduct of the freedom to shoot more scenes, not worrying about wasting film. As far as I can tell, Hong isn’t “improvising” the structure of his films at this point, but it’s certainly possible that Hong planned to have more sequences for this very reason.

The other development is, of course, the use of France, specifically Paris and Deauville. While Night and Day didn’t kick off a sudden wave of Hong films made overseas — I wait with bated breath for the film set in America that he’s been considering for years — the ability to transmute his sensibility to a different locale entirely seems to open up his cinema, allowing him to evoke the great pleasure of watching people exist in a city. He’s certainly helped by the pointed focus on Koreans. It is really fun watching all the random passers-by, but there’s only a few snatches of French (and English), and besides a few merchants the only French people with substantial screen time are the film set workers — this is the first, and as far as I can remember one of the only times he’s actually shown a film set, despite the frequent use of filmmakers as subjects — and the man at the airport. That opening scene is one of Hong’s funniest ever, predicated on the snail’s pace attempts to communicate, and of course punctuated by the man’s exhortation to “be careful,” which likely was meant to relate to personal safety but which, because this is both a Hong film and a film set in France, resonates across an entire spectrum of morality. I’m also not certain whether this was part of the Musée d’Orsay/Louvre film contest that produced Flight of the Red Balloon, Summer Hours, *and* Face; the Orsay scene is incredibly memorable for its depiction of L’Origine du Monde (whose title Seong-nam rejects despite appreciating the artwork), but besides a shot from outside later on the link seems too tangential for it to have been part of that series.

When I first watched Night and Day, I marveled at how this was basically a distillation of all six of Rohmer’s Moral Tales and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore to boot. I still stand by that statement, but since then, I’ve come to embrace the view that Rivette is secretly the greater influence on Hong than Rohmer, and that comes to the fore here. Especially early on, the use of the dates is used for both comedy and playful mystery of purpose, depicting a day with a single mundane action, and skipping ahead a few days or even weeks without any seeming explanation. The days aren’t necessarily free-floating, but the way this dips in and out of scenes recalls nothing less than Out 1 in its exuberant structure.

Still, to return to the other two French influences, they do resonate rather resoundingly throughout Night and Day, both structurally and narratively. While the Moral Tales are the most common Rohmer to cite (and my own most immediate frame of reference, having not watched any of the season films and only some of the Comedies and Proverbs), their stated intent — to depict a man who is tempted by a woman but decides to return to the one he is committed to — do map rather neatly onto the overall narrative arc of the film, especially resembling Love in the Afternoon in its depiction of marriage, though of course Seong-nam goes further than Frédéric does. Likewise, the use of the days recalls (at least for me) The Green Ray, which Hong put on his Sight & Sound list; while that film used it to go beyond a supposedly meaningful date, opening up Delphine’s odyssey to further possibilities, this uses it to stress the absurd amount of time that Seong-nam spends in Paris; the handover between seasons is also handled very well, getting across the relatively epic nature of this film for Hong.

And, while this is more tenuous, there’s something in Night and Day‘s triangulation of the three women in Paris that lies very close to Eustache: Hyeon-joo is Marie, the woman who wants Seong-nam but can’t have him; Yoo-jeong is Veronika, the tempestuous woman who Seong-nam wants but who initially resists him; Min-seon is Gilberte, the ex-lover, though she pursues Seong-nam instead of the other way around. There’s a country mile’s worth less of acidity (even less than I remembered), but the blending of this into the overall Moral Tale narrative lends a great edge and ambiguity: the amazing final dream could be just an absurd subconscious figment, or it could be an actual desire or even a premonition of future divorce to come.

Still, Night and Day is definably Hong’s own from moment one — no attempt to show unmediated reality like Eustache — but there’s so much here that I don’t recall him repeating. For one, there are the opening title cards, which are hilariously specific in noting that it’s the summer of 2007, that he was with American exchange students, that it was his first time smoking marijuana, and that he was notified by his friend Mr. Baek (who is never shown on camera). Especially backed by Beethoven, the farcical profundity is very much the point, assigning a supposed great importance to an event that, despite the strictness of South Korea’s anti-drug laws, isn’t serious at all.

While Night and Day‘s title could be a reference to anything from Cole Porter to Lang to Akerman, I choose to point to Mr. Jang’s early assertion that the sun sets very late in Parisian summers (especially compared to South Korean) and how it can be difficult to differentiate night from day. Indeed, the only scenes I remember being set in darkness in the entire film are the phone calls that Seong-nam makes to his wife at 11 PM, and those take place inside. This also might have something to do with the seemingly total preoccupation that Seong-nam has with clouds and painting them to little monetary success; it makes me wonder whether Hong has seen James Benning’s Ten Skies.

The actors that are featured here forms a truly fascinating picture. Though Kim Young-ho makes a few more appearances, he’s never led a Hong film since, which is kind of baffling because of how totally he nails the self-absorption of a Hongian male while still allowing for a great range of reactions. Likewise, none of the women make another appearance; Park Eun-hye is especially odd because of how well she brings out the coyness and unpredictability that helps unify some of the more disparate threads. On the flip side, both Gi Ju-bong and Lee Sun-kyun make their first of many Hong appearances here in smaller roles; they both ace it but it’s weird seeing them knowing the essential performances they’ll be giving in a few years.

Hong really does have a great feeling for Paris here in quotidian terms, avoiding any especially discernible landmarks (at least for me who’s only been once) and maintaining an openness that allows for the inclusion of such inscrutably sublime moments as the worker who’s sweeping the water and dog feces down the street; the hairtie that Seong-nam spots that seems to match the one Yoo-jeong wears; or the film set, with Seong-nam miraculously breaking the fall of the little bird that is nursed back to health by the PAs and who appears to show up in the airport. While the differences are emphasized by Seong-nam — lack of humidity, the perceived phoniness of the Koreans, the supposed innocence of the French — and much of the comedy comes from his feelings of dislocation and its ability to create so many more moments of discomfort due to culture shock, Hong resists the urge to make it much more or less than a city, which is a mindset where the particulars can truly arise organically.

The brief invocations of religion that Seong-nam deploys based solely off of a serendipitous encounter with a Bible in the cramped guest house are incredibly funny, especially his scene with a towel-clad Min-seon where he reads Matthew 5:29-30 (in reverse order). They represent some of the most extreme self-justifications that a Hong character has used yet, though their intent is for the opposite purpose than the typical attempts at seduction. It’s more ambiguous whether he actually prays in the church while he’s waiting for Yoo-jeong; it could easily be him pretending that he wasn’t taking a nap as he did before.

The arm wrestling is as pure a metaphor for masculinity that Hong has deployed, a sort of surprising vigor that hints at Seong-nam’s hidden depth and strength of character. I also forgot that Lee Sun-kyun’s character is from North Korea; coupled with Seong-nam’s note in the voiceover — which feels closer to how Hong uses voiceover going forward, offering more abstract representations of his character’s thought than mere narrative, a change also applied to the use of music here — that a summit is being held between the two countries, I don’t know if Hong is necessarily trying to make a political point. In a certain sense, it makes more legible the relationship between countries; while Seong-nam can only interact with French people by envying their families, houses, and cars, there are still men on the other side of the DMZ whose egos (and bodies) can be bruised just as easily as his countrymen.

The use of women in Night and Day, aside from the constellation of Korean ex-pats that occasionally rises suddenly, continues the steps taken in Woman on the Beach, at least for Yoo-jeong and Seong-in. The former, after initially being introduced by other’s perceptions of her and in a dream sequence that recalls Claire’s Knee in an eroticization of a body part — between this and the first sex scene in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, does Hong have a foot fetish? — gains her dimensionality from the time spent with her, especially in the scene where he keeps goading her to slap him in masochistic atonement. Her continued concealment of her plagiarism works hand-in-hand with Seong-nam’s own secrets (especially in lying about the reason for his departure), and his decision to keep seeing her without any questions is a perfect tacit blindness to anything except l’amour fou.

Seong-in’s presence already feels established even before her first on-screen appearance; the phone calls feel as vital to Night and Day as anything else, equalling the more visible intimacy in how unguarded they can feel; the moment when she’s asked to masturbate (with a perfect cut-off to the scene) is stretched out the right amount. When she does appear in person, the ease of acceptance of her ruse helps show at least some of Seong-nam’s moral growth, while showing how a woman can now be just as crafty as a man. While Min-seon’s suicide and Hyeon-joo’s gradual disappearance don’t let them have the same impact, the former feels as much of a moral turning point as possible without sensationalizing her death, and the latter still has some wonderful moments, especially in how she echoes the complaint that Yoo-jeong is realistic and stingy (creating a hilarious scenario where Seong-nam is quite literally caught in between the two) and in her delightful scene speaking French with and providing food to the unhoused man.

The closing dream sequence really is a marvel, especially in how it uses none of the main women from before but instead Ji-hye, the student who Yoo-jeong plagiarized from. The leap forward in time is initially obscured by Seong-nam donning a collared shirt and Ji-hye introduced sitting with her back to the camera. The pig ramming into the bathhouse window as Ji-hye cries — I was wrong about there being no subsequent nudity in Hong films, though it’s of women in the background in a non-sexual context — is a perfect juxtaposition of surreal tones, and just as the film threatens to move back into early Hong territory the balance is restored. That this is the first Hong film that ends with the main couple together since Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors with little of the sordidness of that film makes this basically a happy ending. Here, even with the complications, there is something so oddly lovely about Seong-nam’s relative maturation, how his time away and experience with precarity has led him to reconsider priorities. The self-importance and willingness to lie and ultimately abandon Yoo-jeong (with her acceptance) to the possibility of pregnancy are still there, but there’s a kindness as well that truly lifts this Hong heads and shoulders above its predecessors.

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