Cannes 2017 review: The Day After (Hong Sang-soo)

Hong Sang-soo’s cinema can be defined as an intellectual game of repetitions, a canvas of variations and subtly altered versions of the same narrative threads, a conceptually surprising and playful recycling of the themes of infidelity, misconception, wounded masculinity and randomness of existence. What turns these mostly cerebral exercises into emotionally resonant work is Hong’s humanistic approach and his constantly subversive and thoroughly examined mosaic of human flaws and contradictory impulses. Hong’s distinct and incisive cinematic language deviates from the conventional form of storytelling and allows for perpetual experimentations on narrative frame.

Perfectly in tune with the rest of his sly tragicomic oeuvre, Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After is a complex study of human relationships, the fleeting nature of happiness and the unknowability of reality. In spite of the film’s straightforward narrative structure, the groundwork of its astute storytelling lies in Hong’s Rohmeresque devotion to the free-flowing and unobstructed nature of interplay.

The film’s narrative revolves around Kim Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo in an understated and touching performance that perfectly blends the character’s immaturity and selfishness with self-pity and emotional fragility), a literary critic and head of a small publishing company who is still haunted by the memory of a past love affair with his employee Lee Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byeok in a snarky and melancholy turn). Song Areum (the luminous and sad-eyed Kim Min-hee), an aspiring writer, arrives at his office one day and replaces Chang-sook. Bong-wan’s neurotic wife, Song Hae-joo (a heartbreaking and hilarious performance by Cho Yun-hee) discovers a love letter in her husband’s desk and decides to take matters into her hands. On the first day of Areum’s work, Hae-joo bursts into the office leading to an excruciating day of misunderstandings, mistaken identities and never-ending arguments that expose the characters’ egocentrism and deeply rooted unhappiness.

Bong-wan is depicted as a weak, condescending, emotionally needy shadow of a human being, tortured by his passion for Chang-sook as well as his guilt towards his wife. Areum, on the other hand, is a generous and intelligent woman, trapped in a series of misunderstandings and funny coincidences that become the catalyst for the progressive unraveling of male vanity, self-absorption and narcissism. The women are the victims of Bong-wan’s uncertainty and cowardice, but Areum is the only one who actually manages to escape from this whirlwind of psychological violence and emotional turmoil, to grasp reality and its effect on one’s perception of life.

Early morning walks in the shadowy labyrinthine alleys of the city; soju rituals that lead to confessional monologues; the gentle snowfall as a metaphor of change and emotional transformation; the haunting lingering of memories; one’s perception of reality and the intervention of surrealism; non-sequiturs and the impermanent state of things; ontological arguments and the necessity of faith; the consequences of dishonesty and the disorganization of the habitual routine of life. The film is an amalgamation of fragmented shards of a conflicted present and an idealized past. This is reinforced by the hypnotic nostalgia that dominates the film; shot in exquisite black & white and featuring a recurring mournful tune, The Day After gradually becomes an intense examination of the social and sexual encounters between men and women, as well as the consequences of adultery and the uncertainty of modern courtship.

Hong’s trademark camera zooms and sparse transitions help create an atmosphere of claustrophobia and inescapability, but it is the stark cinematography and exemplary mise en scène that elevate this story about the pitfalls of love and the coincidences of life to an allegorical tale of existential crisis and desperate search for connection. The shadowy exterior shots create an environment of uneasiness, esotericism and introversion while, on the other hand, the interior sequences – which amount to the vast majority of the film’s running time – are bathed in dazzling fluorescent or natural light and operate as a mystical arena of confrontation, a physical restriction that leads to the gradual exposure of truth.

The Day After finds a perfect balance between the wryly sarcastic confusion caused by the characters’ self-spun web of lies and the sorrowful ephemeralness of human connection. The smooth shifts between the film’s awkwardly funny incidents and its more intimate moments of affection and quiet contemplation are enhanced by a sense of bewilderment towards a world that we fail to understand and connect with. Every frame is underlined by a palpable feeling of disillusionment and loneliness. One of the most memorable scenes features Areum taking a taxi on her way home late at night; after she literally prays for a change, it starts snowing. Her face is filled with hope as she looks at the dancing snowflakes: it is a magical moment of purification, rebirth and catharsis.

The climactic sequence, Areum’s kind-hearted attempt at reconciliation, initially feels like another intriguing meta-inversion, a regular Hong technique that either presents a scene from a different point of view, enabling an entirely new reading of the plot’s intricacies and philosophical construct, or playfully reverses and subverts the text thus creating a parallel universe for its characters to (re)act and live in. Surprisingly, Hong does not restrict himself to a mere intellectual trick this time round, but infuses his final scenes with a sense of regret and melancholia while also highlighting the possibility for change.

Hong’s unique filmic universe is an exploration of the disarming consequences of (dis)honesty, a commentary on the evanescent nature of human connection. Most importantly, though, it is the cinema of transformation, the cinema of probabilities. Things can get better as long as we have faith in ourselves. Areum turns her back on us but she’s moving forward; change has already come.