I’ve been on a Hong Sang-soo kick for the past few weeks, really longer than that. The South Korean filmmaker gets at the ambiguities and anxieties of love, relationships, and friendships in ways that cut me to the quick. I’m not sure why that’s so, especially since he’s radically different from me in his temperament and cultural heritage and he essentially makes variations of the same damn movie—drawn from his life—over and over. Then again, Stephen Dixon does much the same in his books, and I love him, too. In fact, Dixon and Hong might have a lot to discuss, over too many glasses of gin and too many cigarettes. Anyway, here are notes—and nothing more than that—on two of my recent faves.
Night and Day (2008), written & directed by Hong Sang-soo.
This thing looks so casual and evenly paced that I fool myself into thinking I can make a film. Well, video—with natural light, all-location shooting, HD video, chamber drama, episodic diary entries. Sung-nam (Yeong-ho Kim), a South Korean painter, flees to Paris to avoid being busted for smoking pot. There, he falls into a Korean expat community, and begins getting tangled up romantically with two fellow artists, also Korean. Did I mention he’s married? And that he talks on the phone every night with his wife, even though that must cost a fortune in long-distance fees? And, despite his love for her and lust for other painters, his whole life is problematic because he’s in Paris without a worker’s permit, meaning he doesn’t have any money? Did I forget to mention that, despite said financial lack, he seems to buy something every fucking day—he’s in Paris for two months, and every day he’s carrying a fresh plastic shopping bag—and eat oysters and sit in cafes and drink hard liquor a lot? I present this in question form to emphasize that Hong doesn’t give us straight answers. We glean this from observation, from listening to the spaces between what’s being said and watching the quiet gestures and the daily life of Sung-nam going about his rounds. Night and Day is structured as Sung-nam’s diary—there’s occasional voiceover from him, and dated title cards. And, because it’s a journal, we as viewers don’t get explanatory notes. Sung-nam is writing/reflecting to himself, so why would he explain relationships between him and others? So, we’re catching his daily life on the fly, and slowly realizing that—even though this is ostensibly a diary—we can spend two months with a person and still not really understand what’s going on with him, what makes him tick. It’s all so daily and ordinary that even the dream sequences—there are two of them, if I’m getting it right—seem as quotidian as the reality, and it takes a bit to understand that what we’re watching isn’t really happening. Sung-nam’s reality is mostly limited to his immediate interests and relationships, which is true of all of us. So, it’s hilarious, unsettling, and utterly natural that, despite Sung-nam’s two-month presence in the City of Light, we hardly see anyone but other Koreans. But why should that be unsettling? We all circumscribe ourselves in our own little worlds, no matter how cosmopolitan the environment around us is. (Claire Denis’s 35 Rhums does the same with West African immigrants in Paris.) So, Sung-nam’s world revolves around painting, attractive young art students, drinking, eating, and arm-wrestling. (Seriously. There’s two arm-wrestling bouts in the film. Sung-nam wins both.) The Koreanness of the movie is so casually drawn that it becomes natural; we don’t think it weird that the French are mere background bystanders. (I’m not sure Sung-nam, or anyone else, has a conversation with a white person in the entire film.) That’s a function of Hong’s strong writing but also his seemingly pedestrian visual design. We never see Paris’s major tourist attractions and cultural vistas. The only blue sky we see comes from one of Sung-nam’s paintings of clouds; otherwise, it’s overcast or flooded white by the vagaries of video recording. But it’s not Dogme 95. Hong’s camera stays still or flows steadily—dude’s invested in a tripod. He prefers long and medium shots over closeups, even when someone’s in wrenching emotional pain. So, Night and Day is stately and ordinary all at once. It’s a chamber drama on a poor man’s budget, and it’s inspiring to see that that sort of thing can actually be accomplished, and done well.
Woman Is the Future of Man (2004), dir. Hong Sang-soo.
I love that Hong doesn’t broadcast when we’re leaving reality to enter daydreams, or the present to cut back to the past. It’s a little disorienting at first but, because Hong’s a believer in vignettes and self-contained stories within his larger cinema, the breaks are always (eventually) clear. Here, two men—sorta friends, sorta enemies, definitely competitors—remember their first loves. The problem: their first loves are one and the same—a troubled, lonely, lovely artist named Seon-hwa (Hyeon-a Seong). After a drunken catch-up dinner in snowy Seoul, they decide to check in on her, seven or eight years after they last saw her. Hijinks ensue, some sexual. And that’s it for the plot, really—Hong’s not big on resolutions in general, or on his characters learning anything. (At movie’s end, they’re just as sad and desperate as when the movie began.) Through fantasies and flashbacks, in which it’s sometimes not clear who’s doing the dreaming, we get a clear sense of these people and how they got to where they are. It’s moral decay on display—no one’s faithful, no one’s happy, no one’s fulfilled—but it’s presented in such a flat, deadpan manner that I’m lulled into the film’s sordid lives, despite my misgivings. Maybe that’s because I sense they’re Hong’s misgivings, too.