The Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo is generally pegged as a “naturalist” or “realist” because he makes films about human relationships, shot in unobtrusive invisible-hand camera set-ups, featuring characters who don’t necessarily know what they want, and behave in credibly awkward and inarticulate ways. (This is especially true now that he seems less interested than he was, earlier in his career, fitting these stories into visibly symmetrical storytelling structures.) But what the funny, disconcerting, sometimes frustratinly trivial Night and Day makes clear, in a scene towards its end, is just how surreal the experience of a Hong film actually is.
The scene in question comes towards the end of the film — the artist protagonist has come home from the extended midlife crisis/furlough among the Korean expats in Paris that makes up the bulk of the film. At first, we think it’s a flash-forward — Hong often makes seemingly counterintuitive choices about what in the movie actually warrants a scene, with the cumulative effect that we’re kept aware of the extent to which life doesn’t necessarily move in dramatic arcs — before we’re brought back to the present. But it’s not that the dream would have been credible as the movie’s version of reality, it’s that the movie’s version of reality is credible as a dream.
To a certain extent all Hong’s films are (often brutal) comedies of manners — people have no manners, thus the comedy. Our protagonist’s voice-over is hilariously similar to his dialogue, like his behavior is entirely tied to his impulses and urges without any kind of external factors socializing him. And the uninflected direction mirrors this. The dream sequence comes abruptly: like his characters, Hong seems abnormally frank, blurting out rather than building up. The scene seems to continue along the movie’s structural conceit, which is essentially a patterning of overlapping pairs of women, one generally present and the other absent (consider the title). And I think that this treatment, outwardly normal but corresponding to an invisible, hermetic logic, is essentially oneiric.
I’m interested in where Hong goes from here — he’s gotten progressively more lighthearted in his treatment of male emotional obliviousness, and his narratives are increasingly linear. His movies are all about the same thing, but he hasn’t yet made the same movie twice (even though it looks like he could be getting there). If I had to guess where he goes from here, to keep things fresh, I’d say I imagine him stripping down narratives further, making motives more naked, interactions more unguarded and stories even more free of affect — basically, getting even more real and even more surreal, simultaneously.
Night and Day plays tomorrow, Saturday the 4th, at 2:30pm. Tickets are available. The film is currently without distribution.