Along with countrymen Lee Chang-dong and Kim Ki-duk, Hong Sang-soo has, over the past decade, put Korea back on the international cinema map with cleverly structured, often dual, narratives and sudden, drastic temporal shifts. A particular favorite of modern auteurists, Hong’s cinema is most often compared to that of French New Wave pioneer Eric Rohmer for its carefully constructed examinations of love, sex, and relationships. At the very least, the pinpoint precision with which he portrays his egotistical, self-destructive male protagonists and the multiplicity of subjective perspectives he instills in every scene put him at the forefront of directors tackling the complexities of the age-old battle of the sexes. What has separated Hong from the rest of the pack in his previous films is both the acuteness of his observations and the way he incorporates them into structural games, thus conveying the powerful role that memory and subjectivity play within relationships.
With Night and Day, Hong’s eighth feature, he relies, for the first time, on a conventional, linear narrative and straightforward voiceovers whose bluntness overpower the film's subtle emotional ties and allusive conversations. The setup is pure Hong: a diverse array of women populate the protagonist’s emotional field of vision. Yet the follow-through lacks both the subtextual resonance and cinematic inventiveness present of the director's prior efforts.
His first feature set outside of Korea, Night and Day takes place in Paris and follows painter Sung-nam (Yeong-ho Kim), who has fled his South Korean home to escape charges of marijuana possession. Hong intelligently leaves most of the elements of the culture-clash experiences in the background, instead opting to focus on how Sung-nam’s sense of displacement and separation from his wife affect his already unstable emotional core.
Sung-nam embodies the typical Hong protagonist – arrogant and self-aggrandizing, yet deeply insecure and pining to cede control by making connections with others. His random encounter with an ex-girlfriend whose advances he eventually rejects, his aggressive manipulation of the immature Yoo-jung (Eun-hye Park), and his assertive, contentious interactions with the other Koreans introduced by his host suggest a man who lives moment-to-moment, trying to grasp for something to hold onto in an unfamiliar and, to him, malicious environment. It is telling that Sung-nam spends his time exclusively with Koreans, bad-mouthing the French without making any attempt to integrate with them socially or culturally. Hong does leave room for a few rewarding conversations between Sung-nam and his past, present, and future lovers, but too often these pointed exchanges are surrounded by lengthy scenes that add little-to-no complexity to the character.
The directness of Sun-nam’s voiceover encapsulates what's salient about Hong’s approach, which lays everything bare and leaves little room for ambiguity. While that does make this his most accessible film, it also makes Night and Day a disappointing, frustratingly lengthy diversion for a director who has spent the past dozen years convincing us to expect more.