Besides being one of the most prominent filmmakers working in South Korea, Hong Sang-soo is one of the most prolific ones. Like Woody Allen, he has usually made one or two works every year, and watching his new film has been a sort of annual event for me and other audiences, though it took some time for me to get accustomed to his plain, minimalistic storytelling style. While I was mildly amused by “Tale of Cinema” (2005), “Woman on the Beach” (2006), and “Night and Day” (2008), I came to enjoy his films a little more than before after watching “Like You Know It All” (2009) and “HaHaHa” (2010), and I became more enthusiastic around the time when “In Another Country” (2012), which is one of his best works to date in my inconsequential opinion, was released.
In case of “The Day After”, one of Hong’s three films in this year, it is mainly driven by a series of conversations scene like many of his other works, but it is more straightforward and less playful compared to his recent works. Shot in black-and-white digital film like “The Day He Arrives” (2011), the mood is drier then before, and I observed its few characters from the distance throughout the film like I did while I watched “Tale of Cinema” and “Woman on the Beach”. While the movie required some patience during my viewing, but there are several good moments to amuse me at least, and that is as much as I could expect from Hong’s work.
The movie opens with its middle-aged married hero beginning his another day early in the morning. Besides working as a literature critic at times, Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo) runs a small publishing house, and the following flashback scenes show us the end of his affair with Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byeok), a pretty young woman who had worked under Bong-wan as his sole employee but recently walked away from her job as well as Bong-wan.
While it seems he is still not recovering from his break-up with Chang-sook, there comes another pretty young woman. She is Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee, who was terrific in Hong’s previous film “On the Beach at Night Alone” (2017)), and she comes to Bong-wan’s publishing house as his new employee. As shown from the first conversation scene between her and Bong-wan, she is genuinely interested in literature, and Bong-wan soon finds himself attracted to her. He later takes her to a restaurant for having a lunch and some drink together, and it looks like she is also attracted to Bong-wan while they talk more and more with each other.
However, Bong-wan shows her his jaded superficiality as their conversation becomes more serious. When Ah-reum asks him about his belief and life philosophy, he does not give her any satisfying answer while not knowing what to say, and then this awkward moment is followed by a bitter flashback scene between Chang-sook and Bong-wan.
Not long after her lunch with Bong-wan, Ah-reum is confronted by Bong-wan’s wife Hae-joo (Jo Yoon-hee). Hae-joo has been suspecting her husband’s affair, so she comes to his workplace for facing the woman with whom he is involved with, but, unfortunately, she mistakes Ah-reum for Chang-sook. Sandwiched by Ah-reum and his angry wife, Bong-wan cowardly tries to avoid taking any responsibility for the mess caused by his infidelity, and, to our little amusement, that only makes him look all the more pathetic.
After this incident, Bong-wan buys Ah-reum a dinner as a sort of compensation for her bad first day, but the situation becomes complicated when he comes across Chang-sook around that point. After he takes both Chang-sook and Ah-reum to his publishing house, they drink together a bit like many characters of Hong’s films, and it seems Bong-wan and Chang-sook still have some feelings between them.
This could be the solid beginning for whatever would follow next, but Hong’s screenplay simply stops there and then moves onto the epilogue part, which amusingly repeats one of the earlier scenes in the film. I guess its point is that our pathetic hero does not learn anything from his embarrassing mess as repeating himself again, but the movie does not make much impact for that as merely watching one of its main characters silently walking away from us.
Anyway, the movie is an engaging experience mainly thanks to the good performances from its small cast. Kwon Hae-hyo, who previously appeared in “Yourself and Yours” (2016) and “On the Beach at Night Alone”, is effective as a weak, flawed guy who seriously needs some self-awareness, and Kim Sae-byeok and Jo Yoon-hee are also competent in their respective roles. In case of Kim Min-hee, who recently drew lots of public attention due to her affair with Hong, she did an effortless job of filling her character with warmth and shrewdness, and that is why her character comes to us as the one we come to care about more than the other characters in the film.
“The Day After”, which was recently shown at the Cannes Film Festival along with Hong’s other film “Claire’s Camera” (2017), is not as enjoyable as “On the Beach at Night Alone”, but it is still another interesting (and amusing) work from Hong despite its rather slight aspects in terms of narrative and characterization. Although I did not chuckle as much as I hoped, I enjoyed its solid performances and spontaneous dialogue scenes, and maybe I will revisit it someday for getting more from it. After all, Hong’s films are a kind of acquired taste, aren’t they?