My favorite film of the last two years, Hong Sang-soo's Bam gua nat (Night and Day), is getting a one-week run at Anthology Film Archives, starting this Friday, October 23. It screens each day at 6:30 pm and 9:15 pm, with added Saturday and Sunday screenings at 3:30 pm.
I noted in my previous blog entry on Bam gua nat that Hong had restrained in this film his usual impulse toward narrative doubling, and adopted a more conventional narrative structure. The spine of the story resembles that of Rohmer films like Le genou de Claire (Claire's Knee): protagonist Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) is emotionally committed to his life with his wife Sung-in (Hwang Su-jeong), who is primarily a telephone presence in the film, thanks to Sung-nam's temporary exile in Paris for fear of drug charges. The main focus of the film, however, is Sung-nam's transitory emotional life in Paris, and particularly his intense, dubious passion for young artist Yu-jeong (Park Eun-hye). Therefore the story creates a tension between what matters most to the protagonist (his married life in Korea) and what matters most to the audience (the Parisian interlude which is developed in detail for us). Somewhat surprisingly, Hong diligently follows the narrative rules of this format: the phone calls to Sung-in occur at regular intervals, and give us enough information that we should be able to predict Sung-nam's behavior at the film's climax. Hong also develops the theme of life in exile with regularly spaced observations about cultural differences between Korea and France, and about Sung-nam's reactions to the life choices that face an expatriate. It's odd that Hong should take up an almost literary organization of his material at this stage of his career.
Hong's approach to generating content is much the same as in his earlier films, but the surprises and disjunctions that he loves take on a slightly different contextual meaning here: they are subsumed in Sung-nam's story and reflect the vicissitudes of his inner life, whereas often in earlier films Hong's formal play is from an authorial stance, a manipulation of story lines rather than an acceptance of their confines. As usual, Hong's raw material is so freeform and arbitrary that we suspect that he took the events directly from real life. What's most unusual about the almost random flow of quotidian occurrences is that Hong coaxes out the latent narrativity in each scene, and presents each event with the emphasis usually given to plot points, even though most of these storytelling seeds will fall on barren ground and have no narrative consequences. There's skill involved in balancing the presentation of these micro-events, which can be construed either as bits of characterization or as red herrings in a surrealist mode. For instance, when Sung-nam picks up a Bible after hearing a stranger talk about its life-changing properties, we are getting a droll glimpse of Sung-nam's thought processes, half-inquisitive and half-superstitious; and we are also getting a potential story development. In this particular case, Hong's emphasis on the Bible is mostly red herring: all Sung-nam does with his experience is to use it to strengthen an excuse not to have sex with his former lover Min-sun (Kim Yu-jin). But Hong will generate many such emphases over the course of the film. Some will go nowhere at all (like Sung-nam taking up tai chi); some will develop large-scale story momentum (like Yu-jeong's exaggerated fear of people plagiarizing her art work). All these small but weighty developments harmonize with or reveal the characters' psychology: Hong is a psychologically accountable director. None of the developments, perhaps, affect the narrative deeply enough to change the film's outcome. If we take a long enough view, all these portentous events can be said to be red herrings, and Hong can be placed in a surrealist tradition.
This ambiguity – are the disjunctions merely a reflection of the disorder of real life, or are they sabotage of good storytelling practice? – is at the heart of Hong's style. If he were not a faithful recorder of the messiness of human behavior, his rather hostile play with form might not be very interesting; if he didn't use narrative tricks to create absurd story shapes, his insights into people might be less compelling.