Perhaps a film grad student has written a paper for journal publication called Three Times: Soju and Repetition in the Films of Hong Sang-soo. Like a composer recapitulating a theme, the Korea director loves returning to charged moments, sometimes screwing with the staging, often leaving it alone. And soju, that potent rice vodka, plays a third or fourth wheel. Coming after two consecutive triumphs (On the Beach at Night Alone, Claire’s Camera), The Day After is lesser Hoo, but so rarely do South Floridians have the chance to experience three films by this master in a six-month period that audiences interested in his development should watch it anyway.
Hoo regular Kim Min-hee plays Areum, newly hired by the proprietor of a small Seoul publishing house to do good work, not step into a crumbling love triangle. Her boss Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is juggling his assistant Changsook (Kim Sae-byuk) and wife, Haejoo (Cho Yun-hee). Haejoo greets Areum on her first day with slaps and punches: she thinks Areum is the Other Woman. Then, a little later, in a long take in which Hoo’s camera hardly wavers, Bongwan has to explain the situation to a disgusted, rightly suspicion Haejoo and a dazed Areum, who must be wondering what she stepped into.
It’s an amazing scene: fueled as much by a married lifetime’s resentments as by alcohol. Few contemporary directors can show how the former needs the latter and how the latter assuages the former (Kim Hyung-koo’s desiccated black-and-white cinematography suggests the world as apprehended by a drunk). The tonal shifts – from insouciance to horror – are calibrated to the millisecond. A similar scenario unfolds in Hoo’s previous film On the Beach at Night Alone, in which Kim plays the girlfriend of the older man, a film director (also played by Kwon). Where On the Beach had scenes where Kim projects a quiet loneliness, The Day After is garrulous to a fault. No one shuts up. Characters are constantly justifying themselves. “Why do you live?” Areum asks Bongwan during the initial interview. Working in an office surrounded by books, he’s a prisoner of words, entombed behind decades of collected wisdom. Bongwan asks for pity; Hoo offers him none. Overcome by sobs on a park bench, Kim’s camera regards him from a discreet position, as if observing a weird animal.
Part of the joke is that Kwon is the least likely of ladies men: at the beginning of the film Bongwan’s wife suspects he must have a girlfriend because he’s losing weight without exercising, among The Day After‘s many ha-has. He also writes mediocre poetry that fools no one. Feathery by design, meticulous in their examination of surface, Hoo’s movies play like no one else. If The Day After doesn’t justify some of its longeurs – one conversation or two more than necessary in a ninety-minute feature – it’s another bead in the pearled chain of his filmography. Kick back with a soju and sip this film lightly.