The Day After: Never Forget a Face
For most films and to most film viewers, the detail can appear so minimal: the opening credits. Nobody would confuse an opening credits of a Hong Sangsoo film with say, the dazzling, intricate opening credit works done by Saul Bass for films by Alfred Hitchcock. But in The Day After, Hong Sangsoo’s film that premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and which is now opening in Seattle on May 25th, the credits plays differently in the context of so many previous Hongs. Instead of bold colored backgrounds that the credit text fills as we’ve been conditioned to find from the prolific South Korean auteur, The Day After has no title cards and instead the credits play straight into the film. Minor and unnoticeable for most, but for Hong fans who have often only had the opportunity to catch his films at various festivals, the change caused a kind of jolting reaction. However, the opening credits are just the start of the feeling that with this film, Hong Sangsoo has shifted and is turning in a new direction.
The Day After is a fascinating film in its non-linear, cyclical structure and is one of Hong’s most formally confident works that should be striking to both fans and those previously unfamiliar with his work alike. Hong’s movies often have featured male characters in a crisis, artists (most of them film directors) unfulfilled by public reception and various degrees of success, and often very aware of their poor behavior, which includes disgraced drunkenness from too much soju and infidelity. It has been quite irresistible for reviewers of Hong’s works to tie those films’ portrayals to autobiography, that art imitates life/life imitates art reaching new heights with the tabloid scandal of Hong’s marriage dissolving after an extramarital affair with South Korean actress Kim Minhee (who at this point has made five films with him, including The Day After). Hong’s films themselves do feel confessional in a way that invites such readings, his works full of auto-critique in the various misbehaviors of his main characters and the fragility of masculinity, particularly in the character of the male artist played to hilarious, exasperated comic effect, which has earned him comparisons to Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen. Not everyone appreciates this auto-critique, however, mainly due to how often this has been repeated in his work over and over. It would also be reductive to say his films are, as they have been deemed and dismissed, ‘all the same’. Hong’s early works showed a melodramatic streak as well as a creative, unique playfulness with structure that has become more intricate, audacious, and mysterious but also highly aware of the nature of his films’ non-linearity, an artist completely confident in how to disperse and re-litigate his own film’s stories, logic, and plots, even halfway through.
The Day After continues and expands on those virtues while making choices that confront and interrogate his characters in a more direct way. In fact, The Day After begins with an interrogation by a wife, Song Haewoo (Cho Yunhee), of her husband, Kim Bongwan (Kwan Haehyo), over her suspicion that he’s having an affair. It’s frank, brutal, and direct, taking place in their home kitchen, a setting often synonymous with marital domesticity and bliss. Infidelity may be a mark and trait of many Hong characters but rarely so early in his films is the act, not yet seen by the viewer, discovered and called out, and by the harmed party no less. What proceeds after in this film is not so much connecting the dots to that first moment but slowly shifting perspectives from Bangwon to a woman who might have and could have meant something to him.
Shot in black-and-white (as Hong has shot with other notable works such as Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and The Day He Arrives), The Day After follows Bongwan, who runs a small publishing house in South Korea and has hired a new employee, Song Areum (Kim Minhee), to replace the woman he had an affair with, Lee Changsook (Kim Saebyeok). Bongwan, who the audience has seen internalizing and carrying much pain for his actions while walking the lonely city streets at night, appears to have taken an immediate liking to Areum, whom he invites to lunch, asking her questions that feel less professional and more like romantic advances. Bongwan cannot seem to resist his impulses, ones which have taken a toll on his wife, his lover (who repeatedly calls him cowardly), and, ultimately, Areum, who gets attacked by Haewoo on her first day at work after being mistaken for the lover.
Mistaken identity, memory, and place, or being unable to place a face to a person, act, or ideal, is at the center of The Day After. Haewoo is hurt and cannot help but act out against a figure that had her husband step out–she is not attacking the person but the act and the actor that played a role in her betrayal, and Bongwan cannot seem to break his circle of repeated indiscretions such that after one woman may or may not be out of the picture, he chases another. Hong casts a cynical eye toward Bongwan’s behavior and resolution in a way more damning and more cutting than any previous “auto-critique” in his work. That cynicism exists due to the shift of perspective from Bongwan to Areum.
Areum enters her first day at the publishing house as an admirer of Bongwan. She at first goes along with Bongwan’s suggestions and questions that blur the lines of a simple work relationship. But her opinion of Bongwan declines as soon as she gets caught in his tangled web of love, life, and work which results in her job status at the publishing house wavering over the course of the day once the attack she suffers at the hand’s of Bongwan’s wife occurs. There is something unusual about Areum from the beginning that makes her immediately different from the wife and the lover. Having no history with Bongwan, she also probes him and even under her non-judgmental gaze, Bongwan falls short in answering her questions. Her interrogation should be the least hard and he still struggles. They were never meant to be and it is clear that Areum dodges a bullet.
Kim Minhee’s performance, while not as soulful, vulnerable, and spur of the moment as her turns in On The Beach At Night Alone or Right Now, Wrong Then, still relies on her physicality and innocent but not-suffering-fool’s intelligence. When she first appears at the publishing house she appears overwhelmed by the claustrophobic confines of stacks upon stacks of books, looking very meek. She practically seems to be on the verge of escaping the frame when she is shot, on the fringes, feeling like she could pull away at any moment because she is not fated for Bongwan’s world. When he asks her what she believes in, Areum confesses she does not feel like she is the master of her own self, “not a leading character”. Then in the film’s perspective shift, once leaving Bongwan’s orbit, rather than leaving the film, Areum becomes more centered, in control, moving towards God’s plan for her, as she becomes the film’s leading character. Areum slowly moves towards the center of the frame that culminates in one of the most beautiful scenes of Hong’s career with a close-up of Areum in the passenger’s seat of a car taking in the night.
Hong’s longtime cinematographer, Kim Hyeonggu, whose filmography has extended to working with other South Korean masters Bong Joonho and Lee Changdong, gets wrongfully maligned for Hong’s films having a seeming aesthetic simplicity to them, known more for pans and zooms than something showier. The black-and-white in The Day After is beautiful and sleek, but film’s visual pleasures come from Hong’s confidence in his cinematographer and leading actress to visually present a character taking the reigns of film from our original protagonist with the way Areum is shot and is performed through the course of the film. There is also the clever staging, scenes in which Areum is the only one to see the faces of characters while the audience is left to look at Kim Minhee’s expressive facial reactions, suggestive and intriguing.
After making what was his most emotionally naked film to date with On The Beach At Night Alone, The Day After also has a raw nerve in it, but it gives the audience the ability to step away. The film features a musical motif (composed by Hong himself) that takes on the most high-pitched moments of sorrow that can be so operatic but also gives them a comic twist due to the fraught emotions which consume certain characters, an effect which seems purposeful. When shifting from Bongwan to Areum, the film and viewer are emancipated and so is that motif. There are other stories to tell about what The Day After presents and moves towards. But it is not simple in its shifts: for example Areum return to Bangwon’s publishing house, which becomes a major comic payoff. Areum seems to be the only character not trapped within a cycle of behaviors and relationship drama. She can confess freely, experience, and learn to move forward in life, a new type of character for Hong Sangsoo that makes the film a flashpoint in his career and one of his best films.