South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo sparked a minor scandal in 2016 when tabloid journalists reported he’d been having an extramarital affair with actress Kim Min-hee. Hong admitted to the affair in early 2017 at the Berlin film festival, where he premiered On the Beach at Night Alone; the film stars Kim as an actress who self-destructs after breaking off an affair with a married director. Hong and Kim seemed to be getting the last laugh at the scandalmongers (in real life the pair hadn’t split up), but they were just getting started. Two more collaborations followed in 2017, Claire’s Camera and The Day After, both of which center on infidelity. Hong has been playfully blurring the line between fiction and autobiography since the early 2000s, but now he has a partner in his creative endeavor.
Given how prolific Hong and Kim were in 2017, it’s ironic that all three films present infidelity as a destructive influence on creative life. In Claire’s Camera, Kim plays the employee of a film distribution company who loses her job when her female boss finds out she’s slept with the boss’s filmmaker boyfriend. In The Day After, the owner of a small publishing firm sees his life implode after his wife accuses him of having an affair with a former assistant. All the films may be thematically similar, yet Hong strikes a different tone with each: On the Beach, a wry drama, offsets its sad psychological insights with a sharp sense of irony; Claire’s Camera, a lightweight comedy, regards the characters’ misadventures as pardonable follies; and The Day After is a relentlessly somber work in which the characters are held up for scrutiny. The three films form something of a suite, each gaining in meaning from its relationship to the others.
Whereas On the Beach at Night Alone and Claire’s Camera found a sense of reassurance in depictions of friendship, the characters of The Day After are all emotionally isolated, and this makes it the saddest of the three. Hong establishes feelings of isolation from the very first shot, an image of an empty room in semidarkness that becomes a visual motif in the film. The publisher, Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo), has woken up at 4:30 AM so he can see his mistress, Changsook (Kim Sae-byeok), before going to work. His wife, suspecting foul play, confronts him in the kitchen and accuses him of having a lover. Bongwan laughs off the accusation, then leaves the house, and Hong presents several shots of him walking down empty streets. Shooting in winter and in black-and-white, Hong renders the character’s isolation palpable before revealing the details of his affair.
Later, at work, Bongwan welcomes a new assistant, Areum (Kim Min-hee), whom he’s hired to replace Changsook. Things seem to be going well until Bongwan’s wife shows up in the afternoon and attacks Areum, mistakenly believing her to be the mistress. Uncomfortable about the incident, Areum proposes to leave the job, but Bongwan, who’s taken a shine to her, convinces her to stay. He quickly changes his mind, however, when Changsook appears that evening and asks for her old job back.
As the principal characters change, Hong charts their growth through a subtle visual language that emphasizes minute gestures and interpersonal rifts. The director favors medium shots that show all the participants of a conversation within the frame, which allows viewers to observe how they interact. Rather than cutting to close-ups, Hong zooms in and out, preserving the flow of the conversations and showing the characters as they squirm from each other in real time. This device is particularly effective in the early encounter between Bongwan and his wife, as he evades her accusations, yet Hong also uses it to impressive effect when the publisher takes Areum out to lunch. Their conversation drifts from professional responsibilities to personal beliefs; when Bongwan admits he doesn’t have a reason for living, Areum calls him a coward. Again Hong uses a long take to show how Bongwan feels trapped and ashamed when asked to explain himself.
Increasingly Bongwan comes off as pathetic. Not only does he lie repeatedly to his wife; he lacks the courage of his convictions in interacting with other women. He sobs like a baby after parting from Changsook early in the film and again after he fires Areum. Having to choose between two women is apparently too much for him—he wishes he could have things both ways. Hong regards the character as terminally self-involved. Areum throws this selfishness into relief; she’s modest, honest, and self-aware. Her father died when she was young, and her older sister died of uterine cancer three years before the story takes place, yet Areum is resilient in the face of such events, finding solace in God and her conviction that life will turn out well for those with a strong moral compass. After Bongwan fires her, she prays, revealing an inner strength the publisher lacks.
The interplay between Bongwan and Areum often generates a musical sense of counterpoint, especially when Hong presents them both in the same shot. A prodigious director of actors, Hong maintains a sense of spontaneity that renders the characters’ behavior natural and relatable. (He achieves this effect by presenting his actors with new material on each day of shooting, so they don’t get too comfortable with their lines.) Bongwan starts to reevaluate his behavior when confronted with Areum’s positive influence, and his transformation provides this sad film with a glimmer of hope. Their interactions suggest that Hong is critiquing his own behavior while also seeing beyond it, recognizing his shortcomings as a man while also celebrating his renewal as an artist. v