After several movies that have positioned him as South Korea’s answer to Eric Rohmer, writer-director Hong Sang-soo finally sets a movie in his spiritual home of Paris with “Night and Day.” Very Korean in its emotional content, while also preserving a quizzical distance that is quite French, pic is one of his lightest and most easily digestible metaphysical meals to date — though, at 145 minutes, is several courses too long. Sales chances would be improved by shearing some 40 minutes, though at any length, this is still fest and niche fare for upscale auds.
Typical Hong yarn of an indecisive, self-deluding male surrounded by beautiful (and often equally self-deluding) women is textured with beaucoup charm and small truths, and gains extra air by being set among a small group of Koreans away from the usual claustrophobic social pressures back home. Theme of the emotional lies people tell themselves and others is not new in Hong’s work, but he recycles it skillfully here with a well-cast team of players.
However, pic has the feel of one that could easily have gone on for another couple hours: a roundelay of chance meetings in the street, conversations in pavement cafes and emotional upsets that pass like a summer shower. Characters don’t so much develop as keep on making the same mistakes, which is partly Hong’s point, but could also be equally made in 90 minutes instead of 145. It’s a movie that needs an objective editorial eye brought in.
A celebrated painter in his early 40s, Seong-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) flees Seoul after almost being arrested for smoking marijuana. He lands in Paris, where he rooms in a small hotel owned by a Korean, Jang (Gi Ju-bong, usually in cop roles). In search of peace and quiet, and not speaking a word of French, he finds himself caught up among expat Koreans.
In the street, he bumps into Min-seon (Kim Yu-jin), with whom he once had a passionate affair, and after some initial bitterness on her side, they start spending time together. Jang intros him to art student Hyeon-ju (Seo Min-jeong), who rooms with another art student, Yu-jeong (Park Eun-hye), and gradually Seong-nam falls for the latter, even though she blows hot and cold with him. Meanwhile, the privately depressive Seong-nam has regular, very emotional phone conversations with his wife (Hwang Su-jeong) back home.
Aside from the musical, theme-and-variations style of the movie, the script shows a sharp eye not only for hidden tensions but also for the way usual Korean societal norms become fractured among expatriates. One scene between Seong-nam and Yu-jeong revolves around the (almost untranslatable) way they address each other in Korean; two others, involving Seong-nam and a young North Korean (Lee Sun-gyun), extend the theme in an amusing way.
By the 80-minute mark, pic starts to lose its initial freshness and take on material that is entertaining enough but doesn’t actually progress the story. Movie requires radical tighteningto preserve the best and cut away the discursive undergrowth.
Kim Yeong-ho makes Seong-nam a much more muscular anti-hero than Hong’s previous free-floating, conflicted characters, and has a tough charm that sits well opposite the strong femmes. Among the latter, Park is very good as the cute but complex Yu-jeong, who gradually establishes herself as the lead female; ditto Seo as her flatmate. Sequence of the two of them and Seong-nam on a fraught day trip to Deauville is a minor classic of emotional squalls.
Production values are modest but thoroughly pro, with Hong and d.p. Kim Hun-gwang treating the streets of Paris as if they were born and bred there, with little touristy lensing. Occasional uses of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony brings a faux-monumental commentary on the action that’s nicely ironic.