Sometimes accused of doing the same film over and over, at least by less-sympathetic viewers, Korean master Hong Sang-soo packs up his whole kit and deposits it, lock, stock, and barrel, in the Montparnasse district of Paris. For the film’s hero, Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho), a writer who’s fled to France as a spontaneous, panicked reaction to a possibly small-time, possibly not, narcotics beef (he was denounced for smoking a joint), the 14th arrondissement is seen through the tunnel vision of a refugee-turned-tourist. His living space consists of a bunk-bed-filled room with nine other occupants, and almost immediately his attention is preempted by familiar faces. Just as an American in Korea might find himself irresistibly drawn to another American, any other American, Sung-nam doesn’t stray too far outside his comfort zone, and in the humorous opening shot, which manages to underscore Sung-Nam’s limited grasp of the country’s language, and serve as a weird portent, a Frenchman with a personal space problem and a staring problem ominously intones to Sung-nam: “Be careful.”
While there’s no explicitly given reason to think that the protagonist’s flight to Paris has to do with anything other than his fear of what judicial penalties await him back home, his new environment provides a gallery of temptations, the promise of a new-country rebirth disguising a moral honey trap. As with a typical Rohmer moral tale, Sung-nam is placed in an environment in which a discreet indiscretion would not only be gratifying, but might even symbolize the chance to start over. But as sometimes happens with Buster Keaton, the punchline precedes the joke, as the tendrils of Sung-nam’s past (in the form of an old flame, with whom he crosses paths, but fails to recognize, at an intersection) are actually the harbinger to erotic temptation.
Confident is the hand of the artist who knows his strengths well enough that he expends considerable energy chipping away at them, or diverting the energy that powers them into abstraction or absurdity, which paradoxically come to form part of the support system for the overall architecture: As wonderful as it is, Night and Day is made complete by such baroque grace notes as the digression in which the protagonist and a pair of women on a film set team up to rescue a baby bird, and a zoom/tracking shot through a bathhouse that ends on a pig repeatedly bashing its snout against a windowpane.
As capable as Hong is of teasing and making light of his main characters’ buffoonery, his humorous framing of their bad behavior is tempered, nearly to the point of contradiction, by empathy that is somehow both cautious and ceaseless, as well as a willingness to humanize (through the gentlest ridicule) the men and women that orbit around him. Also, any interpretation of the resolution of a narrative like Night and Day as a spring-loaded gotcha must take into account the fact that the greater mechanism of this long and winding story moves with such leisurely assurance that any lethal force in its stinger drops to zero, and we can hardly claim to know who emerges victorious or not.
Night and Day was Hong Sang-soo's first feature to be shot on digital video, and it's a good thing he waited (presuming he had a choice) until good tech was available in 2007 to do so, since the City of Lights has a long and distinguished history of being framed by many in the cinema's uppermost pantheon, Rohmer chief among them. The Claire's Knee director already casts a long shadow over much of Hong's work, no less so in a story that combines borrowed elements from My Night at Maud's and La Boulangère de Monceau, and his influence is only more explicit by degrees in Night and Day. Hong's location shooting in and around the 14th arrondissement is crisp and bright in such a way that it would take a photographer's expert eye to tell you it wasn't 35mm. Zeitgeist's DVD transfer of Night and Day is almost top-notch, with very little digital noise, and the soundtrack—which is a careful balance of frank dialogue and long silences, backgrounded by the ambient noise of one of the city's calmest neighborhoods—is a suitable match.
Just a trailer, and a botch of it, to boot. Apart from making the film look like some kind of sub-Alexander Payne-esque comedy of sexual errors, with a faux-Mothersbaugh score, the trailer for Hong's film is presented in YouTube-grade resolution. A tiny corner of disgrace on a solid, if barren, DVD. One might wager that Zeitgeist scaled back on supplements to get the best possible resolution from one of Hong's longest films, in a non-Blu-ray format; if that's the case, we might even be grateful there's so little on the sideboard.
A little context would have helped, but it's a very honorable transfer of another quiet, seismic tremor from the Korean master.