Night and Day, by the great South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, debuted in the competition at Berlin last year and I thought it an instant classic. It played the New York Film festival last fall, and I was afraid it would disappear.
Hong’s already made another terrific film, Like You Know It All. Fortunately, Night and Day has not gone anywhere. It opens today at the Anthology in New York and is becoming available here through the various distribution platforms of IFC Films.
Hong studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and also spent a year living in Paris in 1991. His rueful and melancholy restoration comedies like Turning Gate, Woman is the Future of Man and Woman on the Beach are among the most beautiful works of the last decade.
His theme is a great one: the emotional and sexual geography staked out between men and women.
His sophisticated comedies of manners cut like a knife, and stick in the mind. Almost all of the director’s protagonists are filmmakers, writers or artists. Night and Day is about the romantic travails of a celebrated painter named Seong-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) who flees to Paris to avoid being arrested on a possession charge. A chance encounter with a former lover initiates an elaborate and dense roundelay among a group of stunningly beautiful and defiantly individualistic women.
The most elusive and captivating is a young art student (Park Eun-hye). She’s put off by the fact he’s married and considerably older. Her mixture of insouciance and vulnerability makes each of their encounters tense and highly suggestive. Their banter, often predicated on formal uses of language, has a wounding precision. Hong evokes attitudes and complex feelings about identity, isolation and assimilation found in the story’s darker vein of death and loss. Like Tale of Cinema, he annotates feeling and desire through a judicious, rigorous use of the zoom.
“I am so unlucky,” a major character says at the film’s crucial scene. The moment crystallizes the power and tenacity of this director’s work, where the seemingly throwaway — the digressive — reveal the sharpest truths. The film’s erotic tangles, built on ideas of duration and disruption, turned off some viewers, though I was mesmerized.
Very few directors, men or women, could transform the sight of a young women’s bare feet jutting from underneath a blanket into such an ecstatically beautiful moment.
I was fortunate to spend some time with Hong in Berlin last year. Here’s the man himself on his art, love and magic.
Light sensitive: I guess on some level it’s entirely appropriate you making a film in Paris, because you’ve been called the director most influenced by New Wave directors, particularly Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer.
Hong Sang-soo: The reason I like their work and also Ozu is that they’re exceptional films. I like those French filmmakers, but it’s also somewhat coincidental, people see the similarities and the connections people make between our films, because I already have this inside me.
LS: The title Woman on the Beach, was that a homage to the Jean Renoir film?
Hong: I only found out about that later when somebody mentioned it to me. In Korea there’s an old popular song with the same expression. Originally I had a different title, and I was drinking with the producer one night and I just said, how about this title. Also I like English translations.
LS: Did you ever spend any significant time in Paris?
Hong: Just one year, in 1991, before I settled down in Korea. I wanted to see how people lived there. I was aware of a number of [foreign] artists living in France or coming to France and I just wanted to see what it was like living there. In the beginning I lived in this artist’s house. She had an empty room and then my wife came and she found an apartment. My work worked taking care of children and teaching English. The money she made was just for being a baguette.
LS: What was the inspiration of the story?
Hong: At the very beginning it was a small incident. I was in New York and the hotel did not allow me to smoke inside. So I was outside, and there was a train, I saw the conductor and suddenly I felt so lonely so I called my wife and she was doing something in the supermarket and it was daytime there. I could hear a bit of noise in the supermarket, and I thought it was strange. She felt next to me. I could feel her by talking to her and we are separated by this time continuity. Time is so absolute. It felt strange at the moment. When I started thinking about this film, this incident came up.
LS: Your protagonists are almost invariably artists, filmmakers, writers, and now a painter.
Hong: People ask why are your characters so similar? What I do with them in each picture is different for me. Being an artist or a filmmaker in a society like Korea allows me to do something with the picture; I want to work in a form that is familiar. I don’t want to work in material that I haven’t [got a personal connection to.] Whether it’s the location, the nature of the work, I want to work with things that I have some connection with. When I go wrong, I know I’ll go wrong.
LS: All of your films negotiate this geography of desire. Why is that such an enduring theme?
Hong: Because men are always doing something deep down because of women. Not only men, but women too, they have this strong desire to be loved by somebody they love. Whatever honorable thing he does, he does because he wants to be loved by the woman he loves. Dealing with these kinds of relationships can reveal many things, more than other kinds of subjects because it involves lots of mysticisms, prejudices, lies and all the things that are in these relationships. The strong desire prohibits people from looking at their lives coldly and objectively. All the things are intermingled.
LS: I loved that the movie is almost two and a half hours long. It allowed me to luxuriate in the movie, and get into the rhythm and activities of the characters. Other people I’ve talked complained about the length.
Hong: When I finished shooting, I realized that it’s quite long. When we finished shooting, I knew it was long, but I thought, no problem, I usually cut out about thirty or forty minutes. I thought I was going to do it again. Then one month passed without doing anything. Just going to the editing room and smoking and coming back. I realized I didn’t want to cut, even though some parts are maybe less interesting and some parts there’s the feeling that nothing is happening but I need that part for the film to feel like a diary. I thought I could re-arrange a little bit or even shorten it a bit, but then I gave up again because the plotlines came out very spontaneously. I wrote them very quickly in about seven or ten days, so I decided to leave in there the stuff that was coming out.
LS: The sexual content in your films is sometimes quite open, even explicit. Is that still considered a taboo in your country, especially frontal female nudity?
Hong: Not really anymore. I don’t do nude scenes anymore because I just get bored with it. When I was doing Woman is the Future of Man, I felt very strongly, I don’t want to do this again. So I stopped after that. When I asked actresses to do nude scenes, I felt [uncomfortable] and I said I’m not going to do it anymore.
LS: Your style of working appears much closer to that of a novelist or diarist than a filmmaker?
Hong: Whatever I do the important thing as a filmmaker is what I choose to do each time. I don’t plan out what I’m going to do. The only time in my career as a filmmaker I did was on one of my first films, I wrote down what I wanted to do. After that I didn’t think about that. It just all comes out, whatever I observe, whatever is necessary. I don’t know where all the details come from when I first make my mind, and the detail and structure are all coming from different sources. Usually the structure is coming from some memory.
LS: Do you think of yourself as a visual writer?
Hong: I have a set up, a structure of form or a main incident, and then one by one this piece just comes. They are coming from all over, my memory, things from my past, whatever I feel at that moment, I feel like a magnet, just get a piece, something completely different. I combine them. I don’t visualize them.
LS: How’d you characterize your working methods with your cinematographer?
Hong: I usually ask the cinematographer when I hire him that it’s okay for me to decide on the angle. If he says okay, then all right I can work with him. Somebody else deciding the angle doesn’t make sense. It’s so important. Angle and movement I decide and the rest of it we discuss.
LS: South Korea is a small country, but it has one of the most active and interesting national cinemas, both a popular, genre cinema and a realist tradition that you’re a part of. Is it possible to explain it?
Hong: I don’t usually do this kind of generalization. Koreans were known in the East Asian territories for a long time for being playful; they dance, they drink all night. In all the Chinese history books Koreans were described that way. We have some this temperance. We were very well educated considering our economy. Parents were crazy about letting their sons and daughters go to the university. Everybody was well read and things like that. That’s the foundation. We were oppressed [by the Japanese] for a long time and then we had this dictatorship. The economic development allowed us to make so many films.
LS: What drew you into filmmaking?
Hong: At the beginning it was an accident. Somebody told me why don’t you try directing theater plays as a major. I was nineteen. I thought I could do that, so I prepared for the entrance exam in the theater department. The department also had a filmmaking major. In the theater you gathered around groups all the time and you worked together. I didn’t like that. The filmmakers were moving around on their own, they were free, just roaming around, so that’s why I changed the majors.
It came to me as I changed the major. Filmmaking was something I could work all my life doing something, and always find something curious or interesting, or what I’d call experiments. Before that, I never thought of becoming a filmmaker or anything like that. I realized by becoming a filmmaker I do my experiments and try out different things and find a way to always keep satisfying myself.