BY ANDRES SOLAR
South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then ) lays out, in his latest work, an enjoyably jumbled art piece that blends recent past, uncertain present, and relative future free of any flashback or flash-forward devices.
Bongwan is a 50-something owner of a small publishing house. Of late, he has taken to rising before dawn, but the nature of his sudden-onset insomnia is unclear at first. His wife is perplexed, while he seems to be taking it in stride.
The Day After incisively, insightfully deconstructs the love relationship, the sexual relationship, and the relationship of mere romantic intrigue, and Hong places these puzzle pieces side by side and interlocking. However, the resulting picture is no static image with all its parts in predictably proper order.
It’s more like a Picasso sketch in motion. Emotions are (sometimes hilariously) exaggerated. Characterizations twist and flow to and fro. Dialogue repeats and scenes feel out of sequence. Thus does the director perform the important artistic task of disorientation. He wants to keep the viewer off balance and wondering when, relative to previous scenes, the action is taking place.
But, while the filmmaker has created a playfully, pleasantly disarranged artwok, that is not the end, but the means. His fractured mirror here draws us in for a closer look. What sense can we make of these proceedings? What sense do they make to these characters? Doesn’t this all sound very familiar? These questions constitute the sweetspot Hong hits in this quasi-surreal story of love and quasi-love. Why are the questions that he asks us to ask so spot-on? Because, who among us— while experiencing relationships comparable to those of these characters—hasn’t asked themselves the very same things?
Hong brings to mind Luis Buñuel’s vanguard, thoroughly thought-provoking works. Black & white photography, repetition, discontinuous editing, and (to a lesser degree) characters who “inexplicably” remain in uncomfortable situations are all hallmarks of Buñuel’s magnificent masterpiece The Exterminating Angel (1962).
Black & white, of course, gives a film a more iconic, universal feel, while suggesting a certain timelessness in the story’s themes. In a movie like The Day After, color would bring unnecessary distractions to the eye and thus the mind. Parallels to Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) also exist here, including the bumbling of an older man who has gotten in over his head with a younger woman.
Which brings us back to Buñuel and elements of his 1977 classic That Obscure Object Of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir). The director, of necessity, after an actress abandoned the project mid-production, cast a different actress in the same role and continued. The rare move turned out to be a brilliant one, as the “different person in the same role” effect substantially enhanced the film’s theme of repetitive, apparently masochistic behavior in a person’s romantic choices. Similarly, we see Bongwan having sometimes identical dialogues with his wife and with Changsook and Areum, two women who have worked for him. It’s the ages-old question: Do we keep dating (even marrying?) “the same person” over and over again?
In Bongwan’s behavior as a boss, there’s also more than a hint of the underhandedness which brought about the popular #MeToo movement. In such a context, Hong’s movie would have to be one of the most intriguing and wild commentaries on the topic.
This type of small-scale filmmaking fascinates as much as it satisfies, which is to say greatly. Credited cast and crew total only 11 people. So, The Day After is a shining example of quality over quantity, brains over brawn. It helps that the work is front-loaded with astounding talent in Hong and the lead actors Kim Min-hee (Areum) and Kwon Hae-hyo (Bongwan).
Kim’s range of emotions and the heights of intensity which she gamely scales provide not only ballast and momentum, but also many of the picture’s laughs and thrills. Kwon is similarly versatile, though his character is more staid, if confused and easily swayed. His performance is arguably as note-perfect as Kim’s, and I find myself champing at the bit to see them together again.
Fortunately, Hong has already directed the duo twice before (in Yourself & Yours  and On The Beach At Night Alone ). Having these two superb actors available to him must make the director’s life much easier. The trio’s collaborations in recent years—including The Day After which well rewards multiple viewings—offer plenty of plainly thrilling film art in small packages.
4 of 5 stars