2017 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: A blip among heavyweights at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Hong San-soo’s “The Day After” is a tumultuous watch. The ordinary has never felt so unnerving, challenging the moral foundation of everyday human interaction. Seemingly innocuous exchanges are given a layer of brutal focus that makes culprits of us all for relating. While not a crime drama, “The Day After” nevertheless indicts the ways in which people emotionally manipulate without recourse. The victims of such abuse so often seek meaning or validation to excuse deplorable treatment. Hong injects his latest with purposeful observer awareness. The characters are easier to judge when their flaws are framed ever so blindingly. Yet, Hong posits, if the camera was stripped away, perhaps these tragic souls aren’t so different from the audience watching.
Set in present-day Seoul, “The Day After” unfolds as a series of tightly framed conversations with a casually broken timeline reminiscent of Mike Mills’ “Beginners.” Bongwan (Hae-hyo Kwon) is a married man living a fanciful life as a former writer who now runs a publishing company. His calm demeanor belies an arrogant sense of security. However, Bongwan’s pastoral disposition begins to crack when his wife (Yunhee Cho) jokingly suggests his recent attitude shift stems from a new love interest. Rather than confronting his wife’s insinuation head-on, Bongwan ignores her without admitting or refuting. In this marriage, silence is the ultimate form of strong-arming.
The film’s black-and-white cinematography exposes Bongwan’s calculating ways more than color ever could. His next victim is his new assistant, the beautiful and idealistic Areum (“The Handmaiden’s” Min-hee Kim). Bongwan replaces his mistress, Changsook (Sae-byeok Kim), with Areum before his wife catches on. Areum takes over Changsook’s office duties, but is unaware of just how subtle Bongwan’s predatory advances are. What follows is a huge confrontation of mistaken identity revealing the shame, violence, and carelessness caused by Bongwan’s infidelity. Rather than coming together to denounce Bongwan’s callousness, the women turn on each other and look to Bongwan for guidance.
“The Day After” is concerned with the futility of pursuing conditional love. Areum, Changsook and Bongwan’s wife are unwavering in resolving their issues with Bongwan. Rather than cutting ties and moving on, somehow these women feel less “complete” or valued without Bongwan. It’s a bizarre dilemma with an obvious solution, and yet time and again men seem to have the upper hand. Even Areum, who is the most resistant to Bongwan’s charms, is convinced that she has to earn Bogwan’s respect. He is considered an accomplished writer, but the audience is only told this. Never do we actually witness this “brilliance” the women seem to rave about.
In this story, the women have to prove their worth to Bongwan, appealing to his interests instead of their own. Agency is sorely lacking, and what’s left is a besmirched path for women with insight and opinions of their own. Seeking approval from someone whose only goal is to have a fling is sure to end in feelings of self-worthlessness. By film’s end, no character has learned a thing. They continue in loops of self-sabotage and gender power struggles. “The Day After” serves as a cautionary tale for women clinging too closely to a man in order to define their worth.
At times, Hong becomes so wrapped up in his own narrative that the film occasionally loses its uniquely suspenseful pacing. Certain extended dialogue sequences feel repetitive or unnecessary. Moreover, Hong’s obsession with close-up zooms mid-scene comes off forced and over-pronounced. Underestimating his audience’s ability to read inferences results in an experience that’s often more draining than it is succinctly enlightening. With tighter editing and less exposition filler, “The Day After” would be a mesmerizing tragedy of ordinary melodrama. Still, audiences will watch this film and reevaluate every past disagreement they’ve ever had. Perhaps their anger and inability to forgive was more justified than their sweet-talking aggressor led them to believe.
“The Day After” was among the AFI Fest 2017 “World Cinema” lineup and hails from South Korea.