Hong Sang-soo, perpetually introspective, is having an especially reflective 2017. Releasing three films in quick succession, each of which star new muse Kim Min-hee, Hong seems unusually keen to turn the camera directly on himself and not least in his choice of star. In On the Beach at Night Alone, Kim played an actress in flight from the fallout of a destructive affair with a married director (a stand-in for Hong who never appears on screen), but in The Day After (그 후, Geu Hu), she plays an aspiring writer and free spirited bystander to an equally messy affair between a married publisher and his younger female assistant. Like many of Hong’s heroes (which often seem to be stand-ins for himself), Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is a cowardly, deluded womaniser who refuses to face his self-involved disaffection in favour of burying himself in youth and prettiness.
Bongwan has developed a habit of getting up early and leaving the house as soon as possible. His wife (Jo Yoon-hee) finds this odd after a couple of decades of married life and decides to ask him about it over a hurried breakfast. She is patient and half playful, but Bongwan is anxious and embarrassed. He refuses to answer, laughing the questioning off until his wife later texts him to apologise for her “overreaction.” Overreacting is something she will get to later, but for now Bongwan is about to have an informal meeting with a potential new assistant. His wife was not wrong after all, Bongwan had been having an affair with a girl from work, Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk), who has now left in order to move on with her life after realising Bongwan is too spineless to ever leave his family.
New girl Areum (Kim Min-hee) is an aspiring writer with good credentials who comes highly recommended by a Professor Bongwan has huge respect for but that’s not why he hires her. He hires her because she fits neatly in the space vacated by absent lover Changsook, is quite pretty, and strokes his vanity by expressing her admiration for his writing even though he mainly does criticism rather than “real” writing these days. Bongwan’s lascivious ways are immediately obvious in his first conversation with Areum which shifts from relaxed interview to personal chit-chat in which he asks her slightly insensitive questions about her family history, grasps her hand without warning and then later stops to remark on just how lovely he thinks her hands are. They change registers from the formal to the informal right away as Bongwan instructs Areum not to refer to him as the president but as a boss (they’re equals, but he’s in charge). He buys her dinner, pushes her to drink, and flirts with her, but Areum is ahead of him and neatly deflects his growing interest.
Areum moves the conversation to a higher level by asking Bong-wan exactly why it is he’s alive. Bongwan, not as much of the contemplative sort as he seems, waffles on for a bit but doesn’t really know, he was born after all and then…. “And then” is the English title of the Japanese novel, Sorekara by Natsume Soseki (adapted into a fine film by Yoshimitsu Morita in 1985), from which the film draws its Korean title. The hero of Soseki’s novel, Daisuke, is the son of a wealthy family whose ennui is so deep that he finds himself needing to place a hand on his chest to check that his heart is still beating. Daisuke had been in love in his youth but never said anything, telling himself it was out of a sense of chivalry towards a friend in love with the same girl. Years later he realises his notions of “chivalry” were all affectation, a deluded way of papering over his cowardice and fear of rejection. That Bongwan eventually decides to give this particular book to Areum is quite telling in his obvious identification with Daisuke who also failed to speak his heart and faced a difficult decision in considering whether to abandon the life of comfort he had always known to strike out on his own in the name of love.
Bongwan wheedles and defers, squirming like a child caught with chocolate round his mouth yet claiming to know nothing about the missing biscuits. His long suffering wife, finding evidence of a possible attachment to another woman, “overreacts” in grand style by physically abusing Areum, assuming her to be the missing Changsook. Hong plays his usual game with timelines, keeping the present uncertain as Changsook repeatedly reappears in life or in memory. It’s clear that for Bongwan these three women are almost interchangeable, no matter what he might say as regards his grand romance with his much younger female assistant who quite rightly points out his extreme moral cowardice in an emotional outburst over an awkward dinner. In a typically Hong-ian touch of meta-comedy, Bongwan may even have forgotten the entirety of the strange day he spent with Areum who later echoes his wife’s words to the effect that his “face looks different”. Areum, however, like most of the characters Kim has played for Hong, eventually wins out in her free spirited sunniness, taking her great belief in the world’s beauty with her, leaving Bongwan to enjoy his black-bean noodles of misery inside in the prison of his own making.
Screened as the opening night gala of the London Korean Film Festival 2017.
Original trailer (English subtitles)