Night and Day Review
Just a few years ago the Musée d'Orsay commissioned three films by three prominent international directors. Both Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours and Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon were met with great acclaim and given reasonable art house cinema releases before becoming widely available on DVD. Night and Day, the 2008 South Korean film made by Hong Sang-soo and set in Paris, screened once at the New York Film Festival before receiving a very limited run at the city's Anthology Film Archives a little over a year later and was also shown at the London Film Festival. It's only now hitting DVD via KimStim and Zeitgeist in the U.S., three-plus years since its first showing here. Meanwhile, UK denizens are still awaiting (anxiously, I'm sure) their first encounter with Hong on DVD, as none of the director's films have so far found British editions.
It's a shame, really, as the taint of unavailability will always prevent anyone beyond the most dedicated of fearless importers from seeking out relatively unknown filmmakers like Hong. To be sure, it's not as though Hong is a newcomer still getting a feel for it all. The remarkably prolific director is reportedly making his thirteenth feature (starring, for a huge change of pace, Isabelle Huppert) in the course of a career that's now spanned sixteen years. He's also been celebrated handily with retrospectives and festival selections, including seven appearances at Cannes (winning Un Certain Regard for Hahaha in 2010). But, for whatever reason, widespread distribution in the English language world has simply eluded Hong Sang-soo. Night and Day now becomes just the fourth of his films to receive a proper DVD release in R1. (With a couple of others getting the rather poor Tai Seng treatment.)
What's endlessly fascinating about Hong's films is how they approach and then treat the male-female relationship dynamic. One never knows exactly what to make of Hong's protagonists, who tend to be artistic-leaning types of questionable integrity and with a weakness for alcohol. Former relationships seem to distract these men and leave them no better off than they were previously. On the surface, they are typically buffoons, engaged in various embarrassments and able only to muster awkward, unbecoming sex that exists on a mere physical level. They are, of course, Korean, and they resemble a criticism of sorts, but there's also an odd universality that Hong is able to assign his lead characters. Perhaps it's an extension of this familiarity that makes Hong's males seem so terribly watchable in spite of their many and apparently unfixable flaws.
The one at the center of Night and Day is Kim Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho), who is a painter (mostly of clouds) and a new visitor to Paris. A subtitled introduction tells us that he is in Paris because he partook in some marijuana with a foreign exchange student who later gave his name to the police after being caught. Sung-nam panicked and took the first flight to Paris. We're assured that this was his first time experimenting with the drug. This is clearly Hong having a little fun, right? For much of the early part of Night and Day we get such winking humor that, however dry, comes to place Sung-nam as a somewhat dim-witted guy who's clearly so far out of his element here as to have no real appreciation for the extent of the disconnect. Occasional voiceover laments the smell of sleeping in a room with several other Koreans in a guesthouse or the difficulties in finding cigarettes. His lonely wife remains at home, reachable only by the telephone. Late-night calls run the gamut from weepy yearning to Sung-nam's request to hear his wife masturbate while he listens.
The introduction of female companionship of some sort is inevitable in a Hong film and here there are three worthy pawns. Sung-nam first encounters a former girlfriend and somehow inspires a rekindling of that flame despite her current marriage and the various negative feelings she's harbored over the past ten years. More opportunities follow - with a pair of roommates, one of whom goes for him while he, bucking any inkling of common sense, prefers the other because he finds her to be prettier. The particulars are, as with any Hong film, best left on the screen and only mildly scrutinized at most. They are more or less a testament to physicality, vanity and a possible perception of maturity. Why anyone acts as they do becomes of minimal importance. Instead, the focus turns to something more intangible and undone by the persistence of memory.
Hong is a master at capturing unconventional wistfulness within his protagonists. This is a distinct strain of male nostalgia which registers when sex is afoot. The pursuit of sex grows as a means of frustration. Patience is completely abandoned. They zero in on a woman, often a younger one, and seem to pursue her as an unspoken test of their own virility and the need to cling to a certain facet of youth. The obvious lack of slickness with which these fellows operate somehow makes them a bit less repugnant. On the surface, and removed from the narrative, virtually all of Hong's male creations are so clueless as to be comical. Their collective horndog approach should in no way to endear them to the viewer but it tends to nonetheless capture an ugly truth of the male experience. Even if we the audience refuse to relate to these men we recognize them for their actions and almost admire their conquests in spite of ourselves. They are, for lack of a better characterization, a brief, ugly ideal. And the presumption is that Hong very much realizes this in his critical dissection of and fascination with their behavior.
The KimStim label and its exclusive distributor Zeitgeist bring Night and Day to DVD in North America. The disc is dual-layered and available in both the U.S. and Canada.
The 1.78:1 image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. It looks clean and absent any damage, though the transfer seems to be interlaced. While the image lacks the crispness and detail seen in the best of standard definition offerings, not to mention the capabilities of the high definition format, what's here shows no major deficiencies during playback.
Offered audio is limited to a Korean stereo 2.0 track, which also contains some French and English. It's a very clear, pure listen, with dialogue mixed at a pleasing volume that is complemented by the welcome recurrence of Beethoven. There are optional subtitles, white in color. They serve to translate the Korean and most of the French but are not used when English is spoken.
The Chapter Selection area of the menu is pretty neat. It resembles a calendar and allows for jumping to specific days, which is how Hong has divided his film. It's appropriately novelistic.
A Special Features section proves to be a letdown when the only things inside are the option to turn the English subtitles on/off and the chance to play the U.S. trailer (1:29). It's awful, both at selling the film and just in general.