Hong Sangsoo’s The Day After is a remarkably unadorned feature that puts universal truths into subtitle at NYFF
The success Korean films overseas is often limited by a simple truth: actions speak louder than words. This explains the remarkable stylistic and narrative uniformity of films that bridge the cultural divide to the U.S.; from our perspective, it’s often easier to see South Korean cinema as less of an industry than a subgenre of action – characterized by a creative panoply of weapons, the violation of traditional family values, and especially by extensive double-crossing.
The height of this movement is Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) a heart-racing drama with more blood and betrayal than Reservoir Dogs (1992) which was popular enough in the States to merit a (far worse) remake starring Josh Brolin. Park’s other features, like The Handmaiden (2016) and Lady Vengeance (2005) perfect this conceit, and he has been joined by directors like Bong Joon Ho (of Okja) and Byun Sung-hyun (The Merciless) in their Korean killer flicks. I enjoy all of these guys immensely – they continue to make diverse and intricate films while Americans gorge themselves on the Fast and Furious franchise – but often I’ve wondered where the other Korean film genres are.
Hong Sangsoo’s new film The Day After – which is making its premiere at NYFF and was Official Selection at Cannes – reads like a typical American indie movie, once you learn how to read it. Shot in black-and-white, the film is the story of Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo), a middle-aged Korean man who runs a small publishing house, as he is caught cheating on his wife (Jo Yoon-hee) with his assistant, and then hires a new assistant to try and move on. These four characters are the only people to appear onscreen, and the only action – outside of limited footage at the start documenting Bong-wan’s breakdown – is simple conversation and a good amount of soju drinking.
Hong Sangsoo’s new film The Day After reads like a typical American indie movie, once you learn how to read it.
Though what we know as an independent film was created out of Italy and France in the 1950s and 60s, the form of low-budget, character-driven films with simple premises and open-ended conclusions has a quintessentially American feel to them, thanks to directors like Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch, and Noah Baumbach. Hong takes their styles and capitalizes on them to the point of near-parody in The Day After; a single Classical movement scores the film, and comes out of the Walter Reade’s speaker system so tinny and strained you would think it was captured on an old cell phone. The locations of the films are so realistically uninspired that the film’s intentional lack of beauty felt almost oppressive to me in early parts of the film, before I figured out what was going on. The camerawork is like a first-year film class, where stunted pans and awkward zooms deliver the action a dark humor. The urge to make these things look intentionally bad is not brand new, but it was also a strong contradiction from the effortlessly smooth indulgence I’ve known in Korean films.
But the distractions of the style soon fell away as they framed the story, the only thing we’re made to care about onscreen. Bong-wan’s conversations with the three women in his life – his wife, his mistress, and the assistant he eventually scapegoats – turn into the same existentialist humor and sadness that so many American indie films are constructed on. Does anything we do hold significance? It’s a profound question when you’re taking on a project as big as a film, and has a certain symbolic resemblance to Hong’s shabby sets and intentionally amateur cinematography. Why try harder?
Characters’ inability to access life in the moment, instead of an idealized, abstract version of it, gives Hong’s film a tragedy worthy of Chekhov.
Bong-wan, the keystone to the film, ultimately becomes the most emotionally alienating, and we learn to side with the women who pull him in or push him away once we realize that he’s truly not powerful enough to know which way he wants to go. An unhappy coward, he kicks out against the misery of his life to provoke the simplest response to it, which usually doesn’t end well. Though he has brains as well as dreams, his inability to access life in the moment, instead of an idealized, abstract version of it, gives Hong’s film a tragedy worthy of Chekhov.
I’ve responded to The Day After with so many allusions, so many points of comparison because the questions it posits are really nothing new – and the struggle with meaninglessness is similarly one we’ll never get over. But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t significant, or that it lacks moments of originality. At the close of the film, which offers little hope to hold onto, it’s something of a relief to know that cultures and communities around the world are struggling with the same things we all are: What comes of this?