Hong Sang-soo Notarized: The Day After

English Title: The Day After
Korean Title: 그 후/Geu-hu/After That
Premiere Date: May 22, 2017
U.S. Release Year: 2018
Festival: Cannes
Film Number: 21
First Viewing Number: 9
First Viewing Date: June 11, 2017
Viewing Number: 4
Ranking (at beginning of run): 13
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 24
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 9
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 13
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 92 minutes (12th longest)
Color/Black & White: Black & White
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Parallel linear narratives with coda
Recurring Actors: Gi Ju-bong (seventh appearance), Kim Min-hee (fourth appearance), Kwon Hae-hyo (fourth appearance), Kang Ta-eu (third appearance), Park Ye-ju (second appearance), Kim Sae-byuk (first appearance), Jo Yun-hui (first appearance)
Season: Winter (January)
Weather: Snowy, sunny
Alcohol: Soju, beer
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, water
Food: Chinese black bean noodles, pork neck stew, bean sprout soup, rice, seaweed, KFC, cheese stick, grilled meat, tuna
Drinking Scenes: 4
Creative People: Literature publisher, critic, writer
Academia: N/A
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 1
Family: Husband-wife
Vehicle Scenes: 3
Crying Scenes: 3
Number of Shots: 43
Number of Zooms: 17 out, 28 in
Music Style: Muffled mournful synth strings
Title Background: First shot/Black background for closing credits (ball on left side in Jeonwonsa logo)
Voiceover: 3 (two text only)

Since I didn’t begin watching Hong until the end of 2016, 2017 was really the first year I was eagerly anticipating his work, which happened to coincide with the annus mirabillis that saw Hong releasing three films, one at Berlin and two at Cannes, and Hong getting two films into the NYFF main slate for the first time (it was probably too much to hope for all three). When I first saw the fairly muted reception that The Day After got, I thought for sure that On the Beach at Night Alone would be the one that everyone preferred, what with the focus on Kim and its direct connection to Hong’s personal life. But then a strange thing happened: upon its release, The Day After became something of a consensus pick of being one of Hong’s greatest works, certainly among the films from the last five or six years. When I first saw it, on a screener with Evan the same day as Claire’s Camera, we both didn’t warm to it to an enormous degree; now, if I still agree with Evan and Sean that On the Beach at Night Alone is the superior film, it’s only by a slim margin. Especially keeping in mind Sean’s formulation where The Day After is the beginning of Hong’s ongoing late period, it has only gotten more potent and complex for me.

Part of the unique conundrum that The Day After presents, even more than something like Woman on the Beach, is whether one sees this as a Kwon Hae-hyo film, as was basically advertised in both pre-release press, poster, and logline, or as a Kim Min-hee film. Of course, as often is the case with Hong, the answer is both, but I get the sense that for a lot of people, the entire film is that one shot with Kim, one of Hong’s most beautiful, as she looks out of the taxi window at the falling snow. I don’t think any of Hong’s films are that reducible, especially this one, and not just because the film mostly takes place from Bong-wan’s perspective, though I’m not inclined to agree with Ah-reum’s assertion that she’s not a leading character. (When Evan and I watched it, we both felt it was his least funny since the early Hongs, which might be true though I now find it much funnier.)

In many ways, The Day After represents the beginning of Hong’s full hybridization of this early and middle periods that in some ways typifies late Hong. From the former, he takes the generally more downbeat tone, moral examinations, and small, character interaction-first approach pared down to the bone; from the latter, he retains his keen sense for comedy and conversational rhythm, with some other new twists added in for good measure. What struck me this time about The Day After was its relatively clear and clean narrative arcs, in some ways hearkening back to the Moral Tale set-up of Night and Day with respect to Bong-wan’s character. But while an early Hong would have shown this truly dramatic turning point of him choosing to live for his daughter rather than to continue his affair with Chang-sook, it’s deliberately elided here; this is, after all, a 92-minute Hong sensibility at play.

I had remembered the general overall structural gambit that Hong pulls here, including the still magnificently destabilizing sight of Ah-reum and Chang-sook in the same shot for the first time, but I forgot exactly how it unfolds. During Bong-wan’s long journey to work — the shot of him entering the hazily lit subway tunnel is nearly as astonishing to me as the car shot, which also happens to be the first time he’s shot the inside of a car, a common sight in his early films, since the inaugural middle Hong “Lost in the Mountains” — the rhythm is stop-start, first showing a scene of him alone moving across a space before cutting to a scene with him and Chang-sook sometime in the past; it’s unclear whether these scenes are presented chronologically or not, and how long ago they took place. But once Bong-wan meets Ah-reum, it’s presented much more fluidly, with Bong-wan suggesting to Chang-sook to get lunch together followed by him and Ah-reum walking to the restaurant. There’s even a shot which seems to directly reference and riff off of the two shots of Kim exiting a restroom in On the Beach at Night Alone: the sound of washing hands is heard behind a door, only for Chang-sook to exit instead.

I had also forgotten the other flashback, which takes place after Ah-reum is dismissed by Bong-wan: a return to earlier in the day, when Ah-reum is getting the ropes at work. Bong-wan compliments her on her pretty hands, and mentions that she’s free to take any of the books that his publishing house has released. In narrative terms, it provides an off-hand explanation for why Ah-reum decides to take a whole bag-load on her way out. But in emotional and structural terms, it provides something different: an almost utopic (in this context) image of friendly and productive work — Ah-reum is editing something about “a rare art that utilizes concrete human forms to reveal the phenomenal disposition and attitudes of humans,” which is as good a description of cinema as any — that could have blossomed if not for this avalanche of mistaken assumptions and unfortunate events.

Maybe it’s just willful blindness on my part, but like Chun-su in Right Now, Wrong Then, I’m actually really inclined to take most of what Bong-wan says to Ah-reum in both of their restaurant scenes at face value, that he genuinely believes in her intellect and capacity to be a valuable assistant at the publishing house. In many ways, this reading of The Day After complicates it considerably more than merely another case of a Hongian man too wrapped up in his desire for women to truly recognize their capabilities, and places it into something a more tragic but also more transformative realm. It’s entirely possible, of course, that Bong-wan intended to seduce Ah-reum as well, but maybe it’s something about Kim’s presence that seems to forestall that possibility in my mind.

As is made clear by Cinema Guild’s poster for the film, probably my all-time favorite poster, The Day After is easily the most stripped down Hong feature yet, only really having four characters of any note, and a good deal of the pleasure is seeing that repeated set-up in front of the classical music, Bach and Brahms looking upon these webs of deception that forces Ah-reum into contrasting positions: first the wide-eyed new employee, then the wrongfully accused and slapped woman (it’s amazing to see how Ah-reum’s hair clip falls during the beating, and how she repeatedly pushes Hae-joo into the couch), then the rightful accuser calling people shameless (her invocation of mixing business and personal reminds me of the repeated question in Hill of Freedom), then the wiser acquaintance temporarily forgotten. I can’t truthfully say that the ensemble is balanced; in both script dimensionality and in Kim and Kwon’s past history with Hong, their performances can’t help but outshine the excellent contributions of Kim Sae-byuk and Jo Yun-hui, both making their first of a number of Hong appearances. Kim Sae-byuk especially gets perhaps the ugliest crying scene in all of Hong during her Chinese restaurant scene, drooling soju as she wails in the face of Bong-wan’s cowardice.

It’s also well worth noting that this has, by my count, the fourth and fifth heard characters in Hong that aren’t seen on screen. The first and second were both over phone calls; to Jung-rae’s producer in Woman on the Beach, apparently played by Moon Sung-keun, and to Kyeong-nam’s critic girlfriend in Like You Know It All (edit: apparently played by Moon So-ri in her first Hong appearance), while the third was a waiter in In Another Country. The two here are possibly Hong’s most impactful yet. The first is the taxi driver who comments that Ah-reum has a unique look and doesn’t read himself (it’s possible that this return to the writing world was inspired by the talk about reading books in On the Beach at Night Alone); according to the Korean Movie Database he’s played by none other than Gi Ju-bong, the perpetual older man side character in Hong. Meanwhile, the second is Bong-wan’s new assistant, who the viewer can tell even from intonation isn’t Chang-sook; she’s seemingly played by Park Ye-ju, who I think played Myung-soo’s girlfriend in On the Beach at Night Alone. One could read that as a metatextual comment on how Kim was replaced by Park as Jeong Jeon-soo’s love interest, though that’s probably too tenuous to say. Coupled with Kang Ta-eu, the man with the feminine face in Claire’s Camera, as the Chinese restaurant delivery person, every single person with a speaking or featured part in The Day After is a recurring Hong actor, which certainly says something about the consolidation of his production methods and characters.

I haven’t been keeping track of how many pans Hong has in his films, which I slightly regret but which might have been too herculean of a task considering what else I must tally, but I do feel that, while it’s been a trend in these past few films, he pans much more often in The Day After. That is, until the final two dialogue scenes. Most of the film, after all, is a series of debates, of people prodding at each other to try to understand the other, whether it be surrounding Bong-wan’s infidelity or his and Ah-reum’s more philosophically inclined discussions. The second-to-last dialogue scene, of Bong-wan and Chang-sook deciding together to engage in another act of subterfuge — which I found morally horrible on the first few viewings but which is now very funny and delightfully pragmatic to me now — then features no pans or zooms once the two sit down together. Then, the final shot between Ah-reum and Bong-wan runs twelve minutes long, only zooming in and panning between faces at around the ten minute mark. I still prefer my Hong panning to happen less often, but I recognized much better this time the purpose of such an aesthetic shift. The two scenes are maybe the only times in the film that both people in the conversation end up on the same page, even if it means surmounting a foolish man’s deliberate attempt to mentally bury one of the most stressful days in his life; it’s not clear, again, how much time passes between the main day and the coda, only made more uncanny by the repetition in conversation early on, but it seems at least almost a year.

If Google Translate is correct, The Day After is the first Hong to have a different title translation from Korean, which I think is the more open-ended After That, since, appropriately, The Day He Arrives. It’s easy to compare the two films of course; this is Hong’s first in black-and-white since then, kicking off a now extremely frequent return to monochrome, and the English titles suggest a linkage (maybe or maybe not intended by Hong) that extends to the uncertainty of what the title exactly refers to. The Day After might refer to the finale, but it also might to the day that takes up most of the film, referring to everything that happens after either Bong-wan and Chang-sook’s first breakup or his early morning conversation with Hae-joo at home.

Many have commented, of course, on the new focus on religion in The Day After; while Buddhism has been invoked before, probably most apparently in In Another Country, and Christianity was discussed in Like You Know It All, this is the first work that openly relates its significance to the main character. I forgot that Hong goes so far as to bring back voiceover to bring forth the simple piety of Ah-reum’s prayer in the snow, and that she initially refrained from specifically mentioning God until after she starts drinking in the second restaurant scene; Bong-wan scoffing at the non-churchgoing Hae-joo’s invocation of devils is a great touch too. I think it’s that exact spiritual invocation that prompts the coda: instead of leaving it with each character going their separate ways, Hong instead allows the state of grace that Ah-reum (and Kim) provides to apply to Bong-wan as well. He finds his reason for living that he couldn’t place in the Chinese restaurant scene, and his face appears more comfortable. If it’s a forced development, and even more extreme than the fake pregnancy in Night and Day, it’s one placed in a new context, which allows for people to resolve something in their lives in a meaningful, tangible way.

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