Continues a long-present Hongian motif: a fascination with the camera’s function as a tool for chronicling, if not quite correcting, emotional ruptures and patterns of personal failure.
As Hong Sang-Soo’s filmography continues to expand, each successive movie has come to seem less like an entirely new endeavor than the latest volume in a larger composite whole, defined by precise riffing on themes and techniques explored in previous efforts. At first, The Day After seems like a fairly routine entry in this ongoing series, an odd smattering of scenes again constructed upon a foundation of soju and strife. Zooms serve their usual awkward but highly expressive function, the clumsy peccadilloes of artistic men the narrative baseline and the damage visited upon the women who tolerate them forming the dramatic frisson. Yet Hong manages, yet again, to subvert his own template via fine variations in form and construction, allowing for another small revelation from a director who continues using sameness in order to surprise.
The film again stars Kim Min-hee as a woman caught in questionable circumstances through little fault of her own, here portraying Song Ah-reum, who lands an entry-level clerical job for a celebrated critic and publisher. The sparse plot is mostly confined to a single day’s events, as she becomes increasingly embroiled in her boss’s sloppy personal affairs, comedically pulled further and further from professional propriety despite a sustained effort to keep things above-board. In this sense, the film pairs neatly with its predecessor Claire’s Camera, another compact, deceptively breezy affair whose narrative shifts are arranged around a woman scorned for the failings of others.
Along with the recent On the Beach at Night Alone, it continues the further development of a long-present Hongian motif: a fascination with the camera’s function as a tool for chronicling, if not quite correcting, emotional ruptures and patterns of personal failure. This is handled in a manner similar to how professional athletes watch tape, with the understanding that digging into the particulars of one’s mistakes will help to avoid them in the future. Yet the fact that Hong keeps issuing missives about these kinds of missteps certainly signals something, as does the emergence of his (now recently extinguished) extra-marital affair, and subsequent relationship, with his current actress muse, which after going public quickly merged with the actual text of the movies they were making together. Kim is here imagined on the periphery of such an affair, rather than the inside, an instance of provocative role-play that furthers the theme of therapeutic course-correction and also deepens the film’s sense of futility, the possibility for potential mistakes angling out in all directions.
This surely isn’t the first time that two people engaged in an ill-fated romantic affair have produced a work that reshuffles the intimate particulars of that relationship, transforming private pain into public art. Yet never before has such a breakdown been threaded into such a minutely focused tapestry of personal insufficiency, one offering new variations as events develop in real life, partially-improvised micro-cinema allowing for a singular capacity to process feelings on the fly. The emotional focus, meanwhile, transitions from repetition to forgiveness via the rare appearance of Christian doctrine, a shift from the usual Buddhist undertones, handled in a poignant fashion not at all undercut by a caustic final scene. Here, a gorgeous tableau of falling snow and broken dreams is followed up by a hilarious postscript that once again serves to push the audience back on its heels.
This final addendum, playing out weeks or months after the movie’s main events, confirms the slippery use of time and structure throughout. It’s not quite clear until this point whether the film’s capsular scenes have unspooled sequentially or in chronological disarray, and only here does a final confirmation of the publisher’s feckless, distractible nature show that it’s actually his regular habit of deception which has allowed for this confusion. What seems like a reimagined repeat of the film’s opening—the two main characters meeting all over again—is thus revealed as something far simpler, with one party having completely forgotten who the other is. Hong’s shiftless avatars may be doomed to make the mistakes over and over again, caught in a permanent loop of inarticulate misbehavior that also enfolds his entire oeuvre, but his insistence on formal and narrative innovation makes this a merely surface-level characteristic, assuring that each new outing has something special to offer.