Friday, October 17, 2008

Bam gua nat (Night and Day)

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?


C. Mason Wells said...

These puzzling, beautiful tangents frequently pop up in Hong's movies, like the fish in the forest in POWER OF KANGWON PROVINCE, or the American woman with the apple in TALE OF CINEMA, and yet they never receive much discussion in consdierations of his films. I'm not sure why this is -- perhaps because such non-sequitur scenes are so bizarre that they leave most viewers perplexed, rationalizing them as mere pokerfaced comedy. But I think something much greater is at work here. These moments have always struck me as being as radical -- and, yes, violent -- as Hong's bifurcated narrative structures.

Dan Sallitt said...

Chris – I totally agree, there’s a lot more to be said about those scenes in Hong than that they’re funny. To some extent they clearly relate to Hong’s skeptical/hostile attitude toward conventional storytelling. But he’s not just destroying the narrative: he’s taking advantage of it, rerouting that narrative energy down interesting blind alleys. The scene with the bird that I cited is remarkable in its tonal range: it captures a kind of weak force between people that films rarely explore, and probably couldn’t be observed if the grip of the narrative were stronger; it’s amazingly tender and also evokes a natural cruelty; it juxtaposes human social life with something more primitive.

Marc Raymond said...

Nice review, I had many of the same thoughts on the film and on Hong in general. I think NIGHT AND DAY is his best film, and yet I find Hong's oeuvre one of the most difficult to evaluate. I've watched all of Hong's films over the course of the last 8 months and look forward to revisiting them in chronological order this time. I have numerous posts on Hong at my blog if you're interested in checking them out.

I actually forgot about the scene with the bird, but I agree with both the importance of these moments and the difficulty many have (myself included) in discussing them. One of my favorites is the woman on the bridge in TURNING GATE, a character we never see again (I don't believe) and yet her presence strangely hangs over the rest of the film.

And Bunuel certainly seems the main inspiration for NIGHT AND DAY, even though Bunuel was often evoked for Hong's first film, THE DAY A PIG FELL IN THE WELL, especially the dream sequence near the conclusion.

Dan Sallitt said...

Marc – I read your very interesting blog pieces on Hong, which I intend to bookmark and use as a reference. I notice that, though I've liked every film that Hong has made, I have a lot of trouble remembering much about any of them. I think this has a little bit to do with Hong's attitude toward narrative cohesion, which I've always suspected is more hostile than experimental: brilliant as his films are, they feel to me like anti-movies rather than movies. One of the reasons I'm so excited about Night and Day is that I see signs of Hong calling a truce with cinema, finding enough of a foothold there that he can allow himself a non-destructive attitude toward narrative structure. It could be that I'm reading way too much into what is, after all, a very slight shift in approach. (And perhaps also presuming, or projecting, way too much in using words like "hostile" to describe Hong's directorial approach.) But I feel as if I'm not going to have any trouble remembering Night and Day, or distinguishing it from the rest of Hong's oeuvre.

Marc Raymond said...

Dan, I don't think "hostile" is an inappropriate word to use to describe Hong's films and their attitude to cinema. You could argue that there is a certain hostility to even art cinema audiences. For example, many attempt to "read" VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE as a typical split subjective narrative a la RASHOMON, which I think says more about the critics than the actual text itself.

I read an early interview with Hong conducted shortly before the release of his second film THE POWER OF KANGWON PROVINCE. He argues with the notion that his first film was more popular internationally than in Korea, stating that although it was not a huge commercial success, more people in Korea saw his film than every other country combined. He adds that the film's critical reception was very favourable. Interestingly, this same impression of Hong as more popular abroad continues today.

Related to this is his explanation of his unusual narrative structure:

"It's not my intention to say, 'Oh, we should be more aware of this kind of subtle interconnectedness.' For me, it's mainly a matter of keeping the audience engaged during the two hours that the film lasts ... So for me, these structural things don't really say something. They're just ways for me to arrange the scenes in a way that helps raise the audience's tolerance and pleasure in looking at all those scenes. The formal structure itself doesn't contain any 'message.'"

In some ways this is not surprising as a directorial response: most say they make their films for audiences and not critics. But the idea of a lack of "message" in the structure is intriguing in light of your comment on the films as "anti-movies". Hong also mentions in this interview that many foreign audiences simply do not get the humour in the dialogue, a point Huh Moonyung has made as well. Hong has admitted in later interviews that his later films have tried to downplay these elements so they play better to foreigners. Worth wondering if there is a connection here with your idea that the structure is becoming more cohesive. Always worth considering these questions when investigating the work of a foreign director.

Looking forward to more of your posts on Hong in the future. By the way, the reference for the interview is:

J. Scott Burgeson, "Hong Sang-soo," BUG vol. 3 (1988); reprinted in KOREA BUG: THE BEST OF THE ZINE THAT INFECTED A NATION (Seoul: Unbook, 2005): 227-239.

If you need help tracking down movies, books, etc on Korean cinema let me know since I'm located here, although I think you can order most things on-line these days.

Dan Sallitt said...

Marc - yeah, who knows, maybe some of the motion I'm talking about is partly motivated by Hong thinking about audience acceptance. Which is okay with me if true: whatever his motivation, I think he's finding new forms that are paying off aesthetically.