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NYFF08: “Night and Day”

Until now, my reactions to the work of Korean director Hong Sang-soo have vacillated between frustration and guarded enthusiasm, so I'm happy to report that his latest, Night and Day got me but good. The irony in this case—for you, rather than myself, alas—is that the prospects for this 140-minute sex comedy/drama to gain any kind of meaningful U.S. release are dim indeed. Meaning the likelihood of you being able to see it will also be quite dim, unless you can make it to the festival...or find a sympathetic and helpful Korean DVD vendor.
The picture begins with the swellings of Beethoven's 7th and a voice-over informing us that our hero, kitsch painter Sung-nam Kim (Yeong-ho Kim), having smoked marijuana for the first time in his life with an American student...then having been named by that American student after an arrest, took the first flight to Paris to avoid getting arrested himself.
Kim is quite the specimen. Tall and rather hulking, with bulging fingernails and a permanently passive but inquisitive expression pasted to his mug, he rather reminds one of the inarticulate, socially awkward lugs that pop up in Bruno Dumont's films. Kim's habit of carrying his personal items in various cheap colored plastic deli bags is also deeply disconcerting. But Kim seems barely cognizant of his own luggishness as he plunges headlong into a series of relationships with various Korean women in Paris, including an old girlfriend who drily informs him that she had six abortions when they were together over a decade ago. And then there's a pair of roommates, and, as is so common, the one who's interested in sleeping with Kim, Kim isn't interested in sleeping with; and the one Kim is interested in sleeping with tells Kim point blank that she prefers the company of women. Nothing is static in any of these situations, so we're not surprised to see Kim sexually rejected by the woman who was supposed to have been interested in him—for instance. Oh, and did we mention that Kim has a wife back in Korea?
Given its very explicit sex talk and the serious emotional dysfunction of nearly all its characters—and, yes, its generous length—Night and Day sometimes plays like a Korean take on Eustache's The Mother and the Whore. Only minus the lost idealism, and filtered through some vintage Woody Allen.  For this is, in fact, one of Hong's most laugh-out-loud hilarious films, largely on account of the hapless Kim, who seems constitutionally incapable of doing or saying the right thing at any given time. "I like the image...but not the title," he dopily muses, standing in front of Courbet's "L'Origine du Monde" on a visit to the Musee d'Orsay. The character is a disconcertingly honest portrait of male sexual desire at its most abjectly fumbling, and Hong's film is is one of the most acute depictions of how male sexual desire often gets its way, for all that. Unlike longtime Hong champion Manohla Dargis, who lamented in the Times that this picture is "bloated," I believe Hong needs to draw things out here so as to make his theme really register. So many times watching this I thought, "This is what people mean when they talk about 'painfully funny'."

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