Hong Sang-soo’s third film of 2017 (and his fourth in the last eight months), “The Day After” finds the singular Korean auteur deviating from his signature formula in some pretty seismic ways. Case in point: The selfish, horny, soju-guzzling male character at the center of this one is an emotionally confused book publisher, and not an emotionally confused movie director. Sorry, I should’ve warned you to sit down before you read that. Really though, the most striking difference between this film and the last few efforts from cinema’s drunkest one-man genre, is that “The Day After” is so black-and-white.
Hong’s first monochrome movie since releasing the exquisite “The Day He Arrives” in 2011, “The Day After” might seem poised to pick up where that film left off, but anyone who follows Hong’s career closely enough to care should know better than to expect a sequel. On the contrary, his beguiling but relatively insubstantial new feature — a strange choice for a Competition slot at Cannes considering the strength of his recent output — is the most straightforward and self-contained thing that he’s made in quite a while.
In the wake of narratively playful experiments like “Right Now, Wrong Then” and “Yourself and Yours,” it kind of feels as though this standard-issue bender puts a cooler on Hong’s recent hot streak. Then again, there’s no use complaining about “more of the same” when the great appeal of Hong’s career is that they’re all more of the same. His life’s work is like a book that’s defined by the tiniest gradients of change between chapters, and his latest film is another effective reminder of why people keep turning the pages.
Regular Hong stand-in Kwon Hae-hyo stars as Bong-wan, a serial philanderer who clearly thinks of his small publishing house as an assembly line for nubile, easily manipulated girls he can screw. Kwon’s priorities are so out of whack that he doesn’t even seem to mind that sleeping with his sole employee might be bad for business; the film begins with comely young Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk) deciding to quit because Bong-wan, despite always telling women exactly what he thinks they want to hear, is never going to actually leave his wife for her. But no sweat for our main man, Chang-sook’s departure just means that he’s got another opening to fill.
Enter Areum, played by “The Handmaiden” actress Kim Min-hee, a Hong mainstay whose ongoing affair with the previously married director continues to cause shockwaves in Korea and shape the focus of the self-reflective films they make together. A wide-eyed teetotaler who’s too thoughtful to fall prey to her new boss’ advances — but also too beautiful to avoid them — Areum is an irresistible challenge for Hong’s incorrigible leading man. The flirtation begins as soon as she walks in the door, it continues when he invites her out for a few dozen “get-to-know-you” drinks during lunch, and it peaks when she flatteringly refers to him as “one of the three or four best literary critics in Korea.” But Areum’s first (and possibly last) day on the job is all downhill from there, the long slide to the bottom beginning when Bong-wan’s luminous new hire undoes all of his empty sweet-talking with a simple question that he doesn’t know how to answer: “Can words really capture reality?”
Of course, this being a Hong Sang-soo movie, that provocative query doesn’t lead to a sober investigation of the soul so much as it does Bong-wan’s distinctly un-sober attempt to have sex with Areum, his pathetic efforts soon dissolving into the stuff of a very low-key farce (highlights of which include Bong-wan’s wife stopping by the office for a surprise visit, and an extended sequence in which Bong-wan’s cowardly compulsion to please all parties inevitably blows up in his face). But Hong is more interested in exploring how men exploit their power than he is in milking the situation for cheap laughs.
To that end, “The Day After” is noticeably more subdued than most of his other movies (none of which would be considered “high-energy”). Filled with dead air, peppered with references to loss and tragedy, and glazed with a washed out synth score that stands out in contrast to the more jaunty tunes the director tends to use, the film is carried along on a powerful undercurrent of regret, and it comes to feel as though Bong-wan is a prisoner in the book-lined office where he ostensibly holds all the power. Hong never judges his characters — it’s not like viewers need the help — but it’s clear that all of the dishonesty has gotten under Kwon’s skin. When Chang-sook refers to him as “a beautiful person,” Bong-wan’s first instinct is to laugh. Areum, on the other hand, probably doesn’t believe that, but she does believe that everything is going to be okay. She believes in this world. And her belief is more convincing than any of Bong-wan’s lies. It’s no wonder that Hong can’t help but follow her character through the snow at the end of his slight, contained, but ineffably soulful new film. He needs to know where she’s going.
“The Day After” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.