I’m not quite ready to write anything substantial about this wonderful film, but I’d like to get the word out, even though I don’t believe it has an American distributor yet. Hong Sang-soo is the kind of director who, though generally lionized by the critical community, is in danger of being neglected on a film-by-film basis, because none of his films is so different from the others as to constitute an event. This is a risky game for a critic’s director: after two or three “Ho, hum, another excellent Hong film” reviews, the critic feels an irresistible impulse to change the pace with “Lacking Hong’s usual inspiration” or “Stuck in a rut.”
I think that Night and Day
is Hong’s best film, and I’m worried that no one is going to notice. There’s been a quiet style shift in Hong’s recent career, and I think the new forms are coming together into something special.
I haven’t revisited many of Hong’s films: I’m looking forward to watching everything again in chronological order when the first Hong retrospective arrives. If my memory is accurate, Hong’s first five works rely largely on a stationary frame, within which events play out without much response from the camera; pans in these films are generally used to reframe the actors. This objective camera posture lent itself to a kind of droll humor: the form of the film was not altered by the characters’ eccentricities and absurdities. This deadpan camera style is not Hong’s alone, of course, and it is not the only sign of his directorial presence, or even the most prominent. At the risk of being fanciful, sometimes it seemed to me that the proliferation of twinned plot threads in Hong’s films, the undercutting of the narrative’s authority by refusing to clarify the relationship between the alternate stories, was a mischievous, surrealist rebellion against the simplicity of the camera’s gaze and the implicit pretense of objectivity.
In A Tale of Cinema
, Hong began playing with the zoom lens; the effect seemed odd at first, at odds with the Asian master-shot style that Hong had more or less signed up for. Woman on the Beach
continued the zoom experimentation, and its story was less bifurcated than usual for Hong. In Night and Day
, Hong takes the zooming one step further, combining it with an interest in mobile pans. Far from simple reframes, the pans and zooms are frequently wedded to a look or an expression of interest on the part of the characters. Hong’s camera suddenly seems strangely liberated and curious, freely taking up the characters’ concerns, which are, as usual for Hong, often slight and transitory, not strongly tied to the spine of the story. The effect is partly subjective and partly objective: the camera briefly follows a character’s gaze (or, more accurately, mimics it) then returns to its pedestrian duties. Because the pans and zooms are usually motivated by the characters, they lack the didactic qualities of Rossellini’s camera play or the gravity of Rohmer’s, and instead have a lightness that easily turns comic.Night and Day
sticks more or less to a single story line, and I feel a connection between Hong’s move away from narrative doubling and his adoption of a looser camera style. It’s almost as if Hong has been feeling the need for a tool that would let him dart in and out of objectivity, and, having found it, no longer needs to use dynamite to destroy classical narrative. (I’m using strong metaphors – but there’s something weirdly unsettling about twinning a narrative, about using “two” where most people use “three or more.” I registered this penchant of Hong’s as a kind of violence.) Now that Hong is goofing on a single narrative line rather than multiplying narratives, his surrealist qualities become more apparent, and the storytelling wanders into blind alleys and generates red herrings with a distinct sense of the absurd. For the first time, I noted a Buñuelian cast to Hong’s humor. And the film’s biggest narrative trick, the rather upsetting, out-of-the blue digression that sets up the ending, makes the comparison to Buñuel unavoidable, not only in the drollness of the exploit, but also in its unusual brutality that the film only pretends to make a joke of.
The reason that I don’t feel ready to do a good analysis of Night and Day
is that so much of what makes it exciting has to do with Hong’s choice of material. His inspired digressions deserve to be considered in terms of their content as well as their storytelling function. Just as an example: there’s an amazing scene where the film’s protagonist, a writer, is blocked from walking down a Paris street by two pretty young production assistants with walkie-talkies who are guarding the perimeter of a film shoot. As the protagonist waits, the attention of the threesome is drawn to something on the ground near them, which turns out to be a baby bird, fallen from its nest. Still having the same slight difficulty communicating in French as when they negotiated for use of the street, the PA’s and the writer pick up the baby bird, comfort it, spot its home, contemplate options. The PA’s were not exactly hostile to the writer when they were blocking his way, and they are not exactly his friends when they join forces with him to help the bird – there is only the slightest movement across the line that separates people in public spaces. The scene ends before the baby bird is restored or friendships are formed. Though the protagonist’s general interest in women is a motif, nothing that occurs before or after this scene relates to it. Who else would dream up such an interlude?