Fearing he’ll be arrested after smoking marijuana with American exchange students, middle-aged South Korean painter Sung-nam (Kim) hightails it to Paris—that romanticized safe haven for expats and artists alike. A local approaches him outside the airport, asks for a cigarette and then cryptically tells him to beware of his new environs. Filmmakers from Jacques Rivette to Hou Hsiao-hsien have treated the City of Light like Alice’s rabbit hole; writer-director Hong Sang-soo similarly embraces the fantasy, but goes one step further in this extraordinary character study by fully erasing the line that separates the actual from the fictional.
Sung-nam is an indelible, psychically unmoored addition to the director’s rogues’ gallery of male neurotics, a passive-aggressively vain character whose fantasy life commingles indistinguishably with his reality. Hong spends the first few sequences acclimating us to the surroundings, calling specific attention to an observation made by boardinghouse owner Mr. Jang (Gi): “We can’t easily tell night from day here.” Then, after Sung-nam meets an ex-girlfriend on the street by chance, people begin to wend their way in and out of his life as if they were muses conjured to stoke his anxieties.
Which of the protagonist’s interactions are real and which are artist’s fancy? Hong never lets on, preferring to set character and audience adrift within his motion-picture Rorschach test. Indeed, the film’s deceptively placid surface—punctuated by mesmeric pans and zooms—implies that each moment is suspect and part of the self-involved Sung-nam’s larger creative process, which the director lays bare with piercing, X-Acto knife precision.