Claire O’Connell reviews Hong Sang Soo’s latest film, Night and Day, screened last week at the BFI London Film Festival
What do you do when you are being sought by the Korean police for possessing cannabis? Run away of course.
This is how the painter Sung-Nam (played by Kim Young-Ho) ends up in Paris from where the story begins. Despite his own world being turned on its head, in gay Paris, life carries on around him and he has to get by. He is yet another foreigner in a big city, finding a way to live, making aquaintances, working out where to buy cigarettes, figuring out where his life is going next, while his wife remains in Korea fending off the police.
The film is a naturalistic diary style account of Sung-Nam’s experiences. It is an engaging look at the nature of human interaction aided by the superb acting of the gargantuan Kim Young-Ho (seriously, he is really tall) and his often humorous depiction of a man somewhat lacking in social skills, who carries a plastic bag round with him everywhere. One of the most effective set of scenes sees Sung-Nam clumsily insulting a North Korean art student and then later offering to buy him coffee, then challenging him to an arm wrestle in order to reassert his masculinity. The material is beautifully and effectively handled by the actors.
Girls fall over themselves for Sung-Nam although it is hard to see why, given that the character seems vain and useless when removed from the influence of his dynamic wife. He talks about his art but is never seen to do any, even in what one might think would be an inspiring city. Even his return to Korea has to be orchestrated by his wife, where she tricks him into returning by telling him she is pregnant. He plays with the idea of love in the short term but moves on quickly. Relentlessly pursuing art student Yu Jeong, he sleeps with her without protection and then loses interest, feigning an ill mother as his excuse for returning to Korea rather than tell her the truth.
The film remains very much on the same calm energy level throughout. No massive highs and lows here. Ascertaining what is true and what is false is perhaps one of the most prominent themes, the characters repeatedly lying to eachother and the audience themselves being tricked by use of the dream sequence in the final stages.
The director successfully produces something close to a documentary effect with unpretentious camera angles and shooting style: it is narrative that drives the film, not stylistic flamboyance. The sense of realism is also skillfully evoked in the use of the sound design, whereby the noise of Paris is heard at a level that permanently invades the characters’ lives and almost always threatens to interrupt our ability to hear the whole conversation.
Provided that you do not go expecting massives swings of action, gun fights, monsters from the sewer or a huge climax and resolution in the story, you are unlikely to be disappointed. If you enjoy human dialogue and body language, as I do, you will love it, as it is surely a feast of those things.