October 21, 2018

Review: THE DAY AFTER at the Wisconsin Film Festival, April 6 & 7

Review: Wisconsin Film Festival
The Day After | Hong Sang-soo | South Korea | 2017 | 92 min

AMC Madison 6 – Cinema 5, Friday, April 6 @ 4:15 p.m.»
AMC Madison 6 – Cinema 5, Saturday, April 7 @ 8:30 p.m.»

In The Day After, South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo employs stylish monochromatic photography and an intoxicating variety of artful techniques to tell a self-reflexive, modern moral tale with shades of gray.

At once a beguiling romantic comedy of errors, an articulate, gently existential character sketch, a wistful meditation on human nature, and an elegant exercise in visual style, Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After plays like an episode of Seinfeld with a French New Wave twist. The prolific South Korean auteur uses a spare plot based on infidelity and mistaken identity to explore the gray area between right and wrong, as well as life and art. Structured around a nonlinear series of leisurely, alcohol-infused conversations, this deceptively slight, black-and-white drama finds poignant beauty and humor in complex moral dilemmas.

Kwon Hae-hyo stars as Kim Bongwan, the married manager of a small, independent publishing company. Bongwan was having an affair with his young, attractive assistant Lee Changsook (Kim Sae-byeok), but their relationship has ended and she no longer works for him. Having discovered an old love letter to her, Bongwan’s wife Haejoo (Cho Yunhee) turns up suddenly at the office to confront his mistress. Unbeknown to her, Bongwan has just hired a bright, sensitive aspiring writer named Song Areum (Kim Min-hee) to replace his former employee. Alone on her first day on the job, Areum thus becomes the hapless target of Haejoo’s misguided wrath. Although Bongwan tries to convince his wife that she has the wrong woman, she, unsurprisingly, does not believe him.

Through seamless transitions back and forth in time and subtle repetition of nearly identical scenes, Hong skillfully offers insight into the tangled web Bongwan has woven with these three women. A portrait of him gradually emerges as an indecisive, narcissistic, and emotionally confused coward who wants to eat his cake and have it, too, without facing any consequences. Nevertheless, the director seems to reserve judgement of his character, perhaps because he has experienced a similarly complicated relationship drama in his own life.

In 2015, while working on Right Now, Wrong Then, Hong began an affair with his lead actress, Kim Min-hee (who plays Areum here). Eventually, he filed for divorce from his wife of thirty years and since then, Hong and Kim have openly explored their ongoing relationship through his films. This fact adds a metatextual element to what already feels like a deeply personal, multifaceted piece of cinema. (In addition to writing and directing The Day After, Hong composed an original score for the film.)

An early scene of Bongwan and Areum having lunch together in a restaurant illustrates their different ideas about life, while setting the stage for Bongwan’s personal crisis. As the two characters talk facing one another, Hong’s static camera simply pans left or right, accompanied by the occasional slow zoom. Areum asks him out of the blue, “Why do you live?” Taken aback, he laughs nervously and responds with an evasive answer. Of course, he doesn’t really know. She presses him and they proceed to discuss the relationship between words and reality, as well as the nature of reality itself. Their intellectually stimulating dialogue provides a philosophical basis for the way Hong manipulates our perception throughout the film.

The critic and programmer Tony Rayns, an authority on Hong and Asian cinema, has written, “Nobody probes deeper into the ways that men and women misread each other’s feelings than Hong Sang-soo.” Hong has crafted an amusing and sophisticated work of art that utilizes concrete human forms to reveal the phenomenal disposition and attitudes of human beings. With its psychological acuity, discreet, naturalistic shooting, playfully experimental approach to narrative, and invisible editing, The Day After displays a faithful representation of romantic behavior, while suggestively portraying what lies beyond it.