The South Korean drama Hot in Day, Cold at Night is nothing if not timely in its portrait of an unnamed, twenty-something couple desperately trying to make ends meet, as a rigged system built entirely on capitalistic greed attempts to thwart them at every turn. He (Park Song-yeol) is recovering from a motorcycle accident that has left him unemployed for months, finally able to start looking for steady income; She (Won Hyang-ra) takes various odd jobs while simultaneously attempting to finish grad school. They live in a small, nondescript apartment whose rent is being raised within the month. They can not afford to partake in any sort of extracurricular activities, the majority of their time spent either eating the most basic — i.e. cheapest — foods imaginable or deciding what to eat for their next meal. (Let it be said this movie understands that mealtime is the lifeblood of every relationship, even when the food itself is nothing more than a bag of chips or a pot of rice.) They feel shame at their inability to buy a birthday gift for her mother, magnified by numerous siblings handing over envelopes stuffed with cash, yet their attempts at bettering their situation feel fruitless, as financial demands increase at an alarming rate. Hot in Day, Cold at Night is universal in these themes of financial struggle, how the majority of the world’s population lives paycheck-to-paycheck, one emergency away from homelessness and destitution. Indeed, it’s that inherent relatability that inspires maximum discomfort, with rideshare and food delivery gigs keeping our central couple afloat for only so long, their dignity stripped away by clients who see them as less than human.
Unfortunately, this is the type of film that also has its characters state these struggles out loud, a seeming lack of faith in the material permeating its every moment. Behind the scenes, Hot in Day, Cold at Night is fascinating in that the entire production was basically a two-person enterprise, with leads Song-yeol and Hyang-ra also taking on the duties of directing, writing, editing, and cinematography. An impressive undertaking, but it’s too bad their skills never rise above basic competence, the movie adopting a point-and-shoot style that might be more tolerable if the compositions were interesting in the slightest. The editing, meanwhile, leaves plenty to be desired, as numerous scenes go on for several beats too long before awkwardly cutting to whatever mundane shot the filmmakers feel best matches — in most cases, they do not. It would be easy to argue that the unimaginative filmmaking on display is indeed intentional, its lack of frills lending authenticity to the proceedings, but that seems like a bit of a cop-out, especially when filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Lynn Shelton have spent their careers bringing true artistry to chronicling the miserablist nature of everyday life. The film also keeps teasing the viewer with potential drama — the procuring of a personal loan from two shady individuals who make deals out of a mid-level Sedan and demand the names and addresses of immediate family members is a highlight — but never follows through, again making the proceedings potentially more realistic but also dramatically inert. And the whole thing is incredibly repetitious, as the film keeps presenting potential financial opportunities for the couple, only to snatch them away minutes later. Ultimately, Hot in Day, Cold at Night has nothing new or interesting to say about the shackles of capitalism or humanity in general. It turns out people are awful, and doing the right thing will only lead to your own downfall. That type of cynicism isn’t necessarily unwarranted, but it is also preaching to the choir at this point, an exercise in futility.
Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2022 — Dispatch 2.