Review: Measuring Life in Soju Shots—Hong Sang-soo’s "The Day After"

The Korean director's third movie in an ingeniously productive year is a monochromatic, claustrophobic tale of propriety, shame, and values.
Bedatri D.Choudhury

The Day After

When a filmmaker has three films releasing in the course of a year, he can perhaps be assumed to be a hack or somewhat of a genius. Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After comes out on the heels of On the Beach at Night Alone and Claire’s Camera, and I am drawn towards the latter assumption when describing the South Korean director. The films have all been similar in many ways, primarily in how they explore relationships vis-à-vis marriage, fidelity and morality, and yet they have all been intrinsically different films, each saying the same thing but in as many different ways as possible.

On the Beach at Night Alone gave us a color palette of moody blues, pastel sands and brilliant violet sunsets. The heart-broken Young-hee walked the large breadth of a beach, as the sea flowed right by her. Claire’s Camera’s bright Cannes afternoons gave us bursts of yellows, blues and reds, as the camera galloped across cobbled streets, street-side cafes and rooftop receptions. The Day After is monochromatic, stifling and almost-claustrophobic, taking place in closed rooms overflowing with things. It is beautiful how Hong Sang-soo uses space in The Day After, the story of the much-married publisher Kim Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo) and his affair with his employee, Lee Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byeok).

Confusion ensues when Bong-wan’s wife (Cho Yun-hee) mistakes his new employee, Song Ah-reum, to be his lover (after Chang-sook has quit) and he tries to figure an easy way out of this sticky situation. Within a storyline that has its protagonist scuttling between one unavoidable circumstance and another, the scenes take place within cluttered rooms. The film opens in Bong-wan and Song Hae-joo’s apartment that is full of things: china, curios, bottles of wine, a coffee maker, photo frames, vases and other things from years of marital accumulation. When Hae-joo sits opposite her husband interrogating him about his affair, he is trapped both within her gaze and the walls of his apartment—they close in on him and he can do nothing to mitigate this gherao other than laugh nervously. Even his office is choc-a-bloc with books and manuscripts that take up all the space on tables, shelves, and chairs. There are calendars, record players, flowers, bonsais and polka dotted coffee mugs. As material things eat up prime mise-en-scène real estate, the human figures are rendered small and powerless. There is always a foreboding sense of Bong-wan being trapped within this maze of things—lost in his lack of resolve to clean up either his rooms or his life. 

When Chang-sook quits her job, Song Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee) is hired, and after an extremely eventful first day, wants to quit, is convinced to stay, and then asked to leave. Ah-reum, an aspiring writer, deeply admires Bong-wan and she patiently wades through his unprofessional advances while the celebrated image he enjoyed in her mind disintegrates. As she sits eating lunch with him, we see a recurrent motif emerge—characters sit on either sides of the table, eating out of bowls, drinking soju and always engaged in some kind of a confrontation. Bong-wan sits on the right while the interrogating woman on the left keeps changing; first it’s his wife asking him if he is having an affair, then his lover who asks him why he is such a coward, and then Ah-reum, who he has just hired but can’t resist flirting with. There is never an extra person in the background. “Why do you live?” Ah-reum asks him and he fumbles for words. Hardened by the deaths of her father and sister, Ah-reum says she lives on a belief; for her, reality is something that is based on her belief that God has a plan for her and that in the end, everything in the world is beautiful and alright. Through all the meal scenes, where he sits being interrogated, accused, cut to size and abused, Bong-wan is called a coward over and over again till he finally admits to being one. By the end, everyone has had an emotional breakdown but Ah-reum. 

While dealing with the trope of the “other woman” Hong Sang-soo’s films have always been very philosophical without being moralistic; the female characters have always exhibited a depth of thought especially when operating within morally contentious positions of being the wife of a cheating husband or the subject of an extramarital affair while dealing with ideas of propriety, shame, and values. Ah-reum, perhaps, is the most openly spiritual of them all. After a humiliating, violent, and terrible first day at work, she is fired. After a day of having scurried through claustrophobic spaces and awkward conversations, she sits in a cab with a big bag of books. In what is the film’s only release from the building suffocation, she rolls down the window and watches the snowfall. She thanks God for the blessed day and prays that his will be done always. It is only with her coming out of the vicious cycle of Bong-wan’s rudderless life that we see other people enter the frame—a random pedestrian and a delivery boy. We might not know what their stories are, but we know that there is a whole world that exists beyond the constrictions of Bong-wan’s world; it is a world that Ar-heum brings in when she rolls down her window and it is a world that she walks into, once she emerges out of Bong-wan’s myopic and pathetic existence.

With the timescape of the film going back and forth, filling in the cyclical nature of Bong-wan’s life, one doesn’t quite know what specific day the eponymous “day after” really refers to. When we see Bong-wan struggling to remember Ar-heum in the end of the film, we know that no pain is forever—not for Ar-heum, who is subjected to it, and not for Bong-wan, who causes it. While Young-hee’s and Man-hee’s stories in On the Beach at Night Alone and Claire's Camera both end with a hint of hope, we know for sure that for Ar-heum, there will always be a day of hope after every day of pain, always a waiting world outside that, like her and her name, is beautiful.

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