Global phenom though it’s been, the Korean New Wave has been as badly hit by the 2008 economic crisis as any national industry, a situation that opened the door in the last two years for a variety of dirt-cheap indies, most notoriously Yang Ik-joon’s “Breathless,” which took South Korea by storm. The far less flamboyant example is Noh Young-Seok’s “Daytime Drinking,” a peripatetic generation-Z comedy that’s as eventless, but as seductive and wistful, as a real afternoon boozing spree.
In fact, it’s a difficult movie to stay sober for. The cultural context, provided neatly on the Canadian DVD notes by Asian film obsessive Grady Hendrix, is simply that Koreans drink a lot, and they drink a lot of soju (a cheap, low-amp, sweetened vodka potion, consumed at the rate of almost seven gallons per adult per year), and so movies like Noh’s (and Hong Sang-soo’s, among others) express a reality all Koreans can relate to — the lost comedy of waking up in strange places, of losing time, or forgetting why you are where you are, and just letting life carry you forward.
You could call it Korean mumblecore, if mumblecore films were ever funny, and if Noh seemed overly interested in relationships. Made for spare change, “Daytime Drinking” hardly deviates from its title — it begins with a soju-soaked outing of four buddies; the rather lachrymose Hyuk-jin (Song Sam-dong) is suffering after a break-up, and his trio of pals agree to help him forget by meeting in a snowy seashore vacation town the next day to party. Hyuk-jin buses in, but no one else does.
Wandering around, Hyuk-jin heads to the guest house (owned by a friend of a friend, he was assured), but the owner is nasty. He gets a room anyway, drinks, dawdles. He doesn’t have much of an agenda, but his hungover friend keeps telling him on the phone that he’ll come the next day, but he doesn’t, day after day, so Hyuk-jin loiters, drinks too much, falls in with other wanderers, crosses paths too many times with the wrong people, and ends up waking up in the snow by the highway, without his pants.
He wears several other characters’ clothes by the end, but “Daytime Drinking” is not a high-concept, raunchy comedy romp — rather, it’s as affectless and unassuming as its hero, and thus suggests early Jim Jarmusch even as it retains an unstructured looseness and a very Korean propensity for deadpan, peppered by drunken chaos. Beautifully composed and never stretching for an easy visual gag, Noh’s film tries not to be taken seriously, but you can hardly help but notice that almost no one in the film is trustworthy or kind. Because they’re all drunk to one degree or another, every moment of camaraderie stands a good chance of morphing into belligerence or at least negligence at the drop of a hat. Hyuk-jin is not only lost in the semi-wilderness, and in his own young life, but in Korea at large, plagued by passive-aggressive hostility, boozy bitterness and selfish agendas.
Still, it’d be a mistake to read “Daytime Drinking” as a critique — or as anything but a laid-back and seriously endearing experience. By his own admission, Noh is a modest first-timer finding his way, and the film ambles along organically, as if it kinda happens on its own, like a mushroom patch or blast of sunlight on a cloudy day. The complete absence of pretension or “connectedness” or character arcs feels like someone poured me a drink.
Another recreational high: the ongoing and perhaps deathless DVDization of authentic film noir, hitting the bricks now with the four-disc, eight-film Columbia set “Bad Girls of Film Noir.” It’s just a marketing label — the films are not entirely devoted to classic femme fatales, but rather cover the gamut of woman-centered crime-genre tragedy, all in vintage B-movie style and with dizzying degrees of invention, eloquence and invention.
You get a Gloria Grahame and a Charlton Heston in the mix, but mostly you get Cleo Moore and Lizabeth Scott and William Gargan and Ida Lupino — forgotten movies with semi-forgotten stars wandering the gray halls and low-rent shops and flophouse beats of the postwar fringe. You also get the auteurs that even noiristes and scrounging auteurists neglect: Hugo Haas and Lewis Seiler and Henry Levin and Irving Rapper, Industry dray horses that have contributed to America’s concept of itself in ways that are as overlooked today as yesteryear’s housing developments.