Monday, October 19, 2009

Bam gua nat (Night and Day): Anthology Film Archives, October 23-29, 2009

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.


Author: Christopher Bourne said...

Very astute commentary as usual. You're making me want to see this film again. I just got back from Korea, where I saw Hong's latest, Like You Know It All, at the Pusan film festival. I'm very curious to hear your take on this one, whenever you get a chance to see it. It seems, if I'm reading you correctly, that you believe Night and Day takes Hong's style in a slightly new direction, or at least a different presentation of same, an idea with which I would tend to agree. So now I wonder whether you'd see this new film as an advance or a retreat in stylistic terms.

Larry Gross said...

Thank you for posting this fine commentary on this film. I agree with you about it being one of the best films shown theatrically in the last few years. Hopefully this piece will get some more people to see it! Your description of the way narrative events have a palpable randomness which starts-and-stops our sense thematic expectation seems to me to describe Hong's fascinating way of "re-doing" the effect of double structures that he has relied on to create uncertainty and ambiguity before. But what also is "new" it strikes me,is the singularity of his reliance upon this particular performer playing the lead guy. The actor playing the hero was somewhat older and seemed to have a star-magnetism different from anyone Hong has put in the center of his films prior to this. A little like Godard working with Belmondo or Bardot or Huppert. This didn't make the lead character "more sympathetic" than previous confused Hong protagonists, but he did have his own power or intensity separate from the processes of the narrative that further complicates the texture of the experience. I asked Hong about this at a Q&A after the film screened in LA last month and he confirmed that the lead actor is a big star in Korea.

Dan Sallitt said...

Chris - to my surprise, Like You Know It All was the first Hong film I had problems with. All of a sudden it seemed to me as if he was playing up the eccentricity for effect. I'm hoping I like it better next time around.

Larry - that's interesting that Kim Yeong-ho is a big star. It's true that his solidity and affable manner have a big effect on the tone of the film.

Author: Christopher Bourne said...

Dan, I didn't know you'd seen the new film already. Was it in Toronto? I actually liked the film quite a lot, and I really didn't see it as that radically different from the others. We definitely have to talk about it the next time we see each other.

Also, as far as the actors in Hong's films go, I'd like to point out that actually, many of the actors he casts in his films are stars in Korea. The late Lee Eun-ju (Virgin Stripped Bare), Yu Ji-tae (Woman is the Future of Man), Uhm Ji-won (Tale of Cinema, Like You Know It All), Kim Sang-kyung (Turning Gate, Cinema), Ko Hyun-jung (Woman on the Beach, Like You Know It All), Kim Tae-woo (Future, Beach, Like You Know) were/are all big stars in both films and television in Korea. So it's even more remarkable that all of these very popular actors are able to mesh so well with Hong's very idiosyncratic style and working methods. However, having these familiar (to Koreans) faces in his films doesn't help him much at the box office -- although he does have a solid (if small) fan base in Korea, his films remain more popular outside his country.

Alexander said...

I'm not sure whether it's a cultural thing, but the regular asshole behaviour of Hong's characters seems over-wrought to me (equally, in this, the scene after the main character has sex without a condom is an awfully written attempt to show people in love, IMO). I've only seen 2 films of his, mind: this and Woman Is the Future of Man, but apart from talkiness, the comparison to Rohmer (who's in my top 5 directors) is so far disappointing to me. I'll admit his films have moments, though, like the arm-wrestling in this.
Then again, I'm the one who posted about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes stating how I don't like Hawks, and since then I loved both Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo... (Still don't like GPB, though.
So I should probably give Hong another shot, maybe one of his earliest works.

Dan Sallitt said...

Maybe you should try THE DAY A PIG FELL INTO THE WELL - it's a little different, and quite goofd.

Alexander said...

Thanks, I will.