Following his most even-handed exploration of male-female sexual conflict in Woman on the Beach, Hong Sang-soo hurtles full-bore into the subjectivity of the horny man with Night and Day. It’s hard for me to fully endorse Hong’s career-long interrogations of male bad behavior: As perceptively critical and formally rigorous as they are, they also give off a vibe of terminal self-absorption inspiring Hong to issue one celluloid apologia after another. But perhaps it’s laudable that Hong’s latest takes the narcissism of his male anti-heroes and goes the whole hog (literally, judging by the film’s penultimate image of a pig repeatedly banging its snout against the window of a women’s bathhouse).
Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho), a married painter who doesn’t seem to do much painting, books it to Paris after getting caught in a petty crime, opening him up to a midlife crisis adventure come true: days of total freedom spent having liquor lunches in cafés and pursuing romance with sparkplug art student Yoo-jung (Park Eun-hye). Played by Kim Yeong-ho like an older version of a burly Seth Rogen man-child, Sung-nam is Hong’s goofiest, most affable protagonist to date. His impulsive moral sense wreaks havoc on those around him (in one sequence he escorts an old flame to a hotel before reading from the Bible to explain why they can’t have sex). He meets his match in Yoo-jung, an arrogant brat whose petulant disdain for him only fuels his horniness. In a strange land where even fellow countrymen feel like strangers (the presence of a North Korean at one dinner party leads to a devastatingly funny faux pas), Sung-nam can only train his sights on his idealized image of Yoo-jung before reality eventually dissolves it, as Yoo-jung proves to be not what she seems.
To his credit, Hong includes enough stutter-steps and awkward moments in the pursuit to expose the motivations and libidinal programming on both sides of the bed, most vividly in exchanges when Hong and Yoo-jung argue over how formally or informally they should address each other: Yoo-jung seems to prefer to maintain a patriarchal distance to enhance Sung-nam’s married-man appeal, while Sung-nam would just as well lower himself to become her horizontal equal. Hong’s camera approximates Sung-nam’s sexually blinkered and socially bewildered point of view, often zooming in to get a tighter view of the action, as if trying to maintain focus. A street-level pan that draws a beeline from the backs of Yoo-jung’s miniskirted legs to Sung-nam’s face just at the moment he diverts his attention back to the woman he’s seated with nails his distracted state of mind with laser precision. Add two dream sequences woven into the narrative with sinister subtlety, and it becomes apparent that the entire film plays like a projection of a male wet dream-cum-nightmare of a libido that knows no borders, leaving Sung-nam apologizing absurdly to his wife for things he said in his sleep. For what it’s worth, few films more knowingly illustrate the lust and confusion of the male mind.