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Given the importance and recurrence of repetitions in South-Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s work, it almost feels appropriate he has two films in Cannes instead of just one. Out-of-competition title Claire’s Camera was shot in color and in Cannes and stars his In Another Country lead, Isabelle Huppert, alongside the filmmaker’s new muse, Kim Min-hee. For his competition entry The Day After (Geu-hu), Hong returned to Korea and reunited with Kim and Huppert’s In Another Country co-star Kwon Hae-hyo, who play a newly arrived employee and her lovesick boss, respectively.
In many ways, The Day After is a quintessential Hong joint. Copious amounts of local spirits are consumed — you just know the eventual box set of his work will be called Fifty Shades of Soju — and people sit around tables and talk, mainly about love, from early morning until well into the night. The result is another finely grained portrait of a miserable male character, who here complains to his new employee about the other two women in his life: his wife and the mistress/co-worker who is now gone and the new arrival is replacing. Though finally a little too familiar and wispy to be counted among Hong’s best work, this should nonetheless please fans of the prolific director, though it is unlikely to bring him many new admirers — unless it manages to bag a major award from this year’s Cannes jury.
The setup is straightforward: Ah-reum (Kim), a perceptive and religious young woman aspiring to be a writer, arrives for her first day of work at a small publishing company run by the celebrated critic, Bong-wan (Kwon). What she doesn’t yet know is that she’s replacing Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk, from Stateless Things), the married Bong-wan’s former mistress who has been gone for about a month. When her boss explains — over a meal and soju, natch — that she left because it was “hard for them both,” Ah-reum wonders out loud whether he doesn’t mean that he made her quit her job because it was hard for him.
Ah-reum’s first day may start off with coffee and an innocent-seeming chat about her family background, but she’ll end up having a more eventful first day at work than most. This has less to do with the revelations surrounding her predecessor than with the unexpected arrival of Bong-wan’s chic wife (Cho Yun-hee), who mistakes Ah-reum for his mistress and who starts hitting the woman straight away, much to the surprise of the new arrival.
However, Hong, who again wrote as well as directed, hasn’t suddenly become someone interested in things such as densely plotted narratives and surprise twists, with the few events that happen only excuses to dig a little deeper into the behavior and feelings of his protagonists. Whether Ah-reum or Bong-wan is the real lead here is up for debate, with Ah-reum herself somewhat teasingly stating at one point that she doesn’t see herself as the lead character in the reality she perceives. But the film she’s in does form a loose trilogy of sorts with Claire’s Camera and Hong’s On the Beach at Night Alone, which premiered in Berlin just a few months ago, with the character Kim plays in each of these dealing with the fallout of man’s amorous errors and travails.
But here, Ah-reum functions more as the conscience of Bong-wan than as a fully developed character herself, with her admonishing her boss at one point with a pointed and true: “You’re just choosing the easiest path.” The fact she’s not only smart but also religious is a fascinating touch that’s then not really developed any further. Ah-reum may recite a prayer in voiceover during one of the film’s most beautiful shots, as she sits in a driving cab with the window half down while it snows outside, but there are no attempts to otherwise connect her beliefs to her powers of perception, moral rectitude or even her behavior and thoughts generally.
Since practically all the revelations concern Bong-wan, he’s finally the most fleshed-out character, with the film slowly turning into another one of Hong’s studies of male cowardice, indecisiveness and fragility, all caused by Bong-wan’s incapability to choose because he really wants to have it all without facing any consequences. He comes off as especially inattentive and inconsiderate in the film’s home stretch, which initially plays like a strange replay of an earlier sequence, as is this were Groundhog Day or the director’s own Right Now, Wrong Then (still his best film to date).
In terms of the mise-en-scene, the setups are straightforward, with many of the conversations taking place over tables with the characters facing each other and the camera simply panning left or right from an initial two-shot to emphasize either a sentence of dialogue or a reaction on either side of the table. The zooms here are less brusque than in his last couple of features, lending the films a more wistful, almost French New Wave quality that is further reinforced by the repeated use of a short piece of melancholy, electronic-sounding music credited to the director as well. This is cinematographer Kim Hyung-ku’s fifth collaboration with Hong and his first since 2013’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, though The Day After is closest, because of its fine use of black and white, to their The Day He Arrives (2011). In Hong’s oeuvre, even the titles start to sound alike.
Production company: Jeonwonsa Film
Cast: Kwon Hae-hyo, Kim Min-hee, Kim Sae-byuk, Cho Yun-hee
Writer-Director: Hong Sang-soo
Producer: Hong Sang-soo
Director of photography: Kim Hyung-ku
Editor: Hahm Sung-won
Music: Hong Sang-soo
No rating, 92 minutes
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