For a filmmaker who supposedly makes the same (or similar) films each time around, Hong Sang-soo has grown remarkably with each of his last films. From Tale of Cinema’s quietly devastating self-reflexivity (and self-reflection) to Woman on the Beach’s focus on Hong's female characters and even greater nuance in the entwining of relationships and plot, Hong has now taken the same jump as Hou Hsiou-hsien, making a film overseas in France. And with this new location, treated in the same low-key, modest way as all of Hong’s vacation spots, drinking restaurants, and spare apartments, the director has achieved a wonderful subtlety in the small rhymes and structures in his often mirroring and doubling stories of personal frustration and sexual desire.
No such obvious structures as Woman on the Beach's inverted triangle or Tale of Cinema's life-imitating-a-film diagram frame the story of Seong-nam (Kim Yeong-ho), who flees a marijuana charge and his beloved wife in South Korea for a lonely series of weeks in the French capital. Unemployed there and not working at his profession as a painter, he meets few, if any, French, and instead befriends a series of expatriate South Korean women, all surprisingly in as low a state of subtle desperation as Seong-nam himself.
Episodic and unusually meandering (told in—yes—Rohmer-like daily diary format), Hong’s prototypical, somewhere jerk-like protagonist, here unexpectedly bulky and a bit plodding, tries his hand at a number of philosophies of life, morality, and women (bibles, toe sucking, erratic dreams, and a decision “not to judge” are all picked up and left behind) as he tries to find some semblance of both happiness and himself in Paris. His frustration is palpable as he forlornly calls his wife during the evenings in Paris (daytime in Korea, thus the title), and tragedy seems to grow nearer after he runs into an old girlfriend, hilariously invites her into a hotel but then finds and quotes a passage in the bible that suggests sinners should restrain their desire (and gouge out an eye in the process), and later that evening asks his wife to touch herself over the phone.
Soon Seong-nam is chasing after most of the women he knows, and with the appearance and desire for each woman another seems to appear on the horizon, the first one already receding as one more authentic or pure appears—moving from a married girl to a single one, from an inspired plagiarizer to an artist. The progression is welcome—Hong has become more mysterious in his subtlety, his new lack of direct, diagrammatic plotting and an obvious path for his main character to follow. The result seems more realistic, especially as this time there are issues of marriage, infidelity, pregnancy, and suicide to contend with, not "just" the petty bickering, manipulation, and desire to get laid. The Paris setting provides a morass of tangentially related people searching for themselves overseas and haphazardly intersecting—as in a Rohmer film, they themselves try to find the structure, the meaning, the point of life’s random lessons and encounters.
Thus while Night and Day is Hong’s longest film, it still feels unusually at ease, possibly even endless, developing naturally and tangentially, and moving very unexpectedly. This is the first Hong film that suggests true love not once but twice, pushes dreams to a welcome level of surrealness, has a male hero who honestly sheds tears, and contains remarkably sincere declarations of love with startling frequency. Is this Hong's most earnest work? It certainly seems his most complex since Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) and richest since On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002). Frankly, the way this director has been going, I don't think there will ever be such a thing as a bad Hong film, but what makes watching his movies all the more wonderful is to see such an filmmaker working consistently and with regularity evolve his art by such small, but welcome degrees.