Hong Sangsoo’s The Day After begins with a man raiding his fridge at 4:30 in the morning. As introductory gestures go, it would be easy to mistake Bongwan (Kwon Haehyo, a Hong regular) for a man looking to kick-start his day, an “early to bed, early to rise” type. But, as it turns out, the not-so-responsible Bongwan is simply trying to avoid his wife (Cho Yunhee), the woman with a spot-on hunch her husband is having an affair.
His mistress is Changsook (Kim Saebyuk), formerly Bongwan’s sole employee at his small publishing house, which he runs when not writing or judging local essay contests. Hong doesn’t bother spelling out Bongwan and Changsook’s relationship status as it stands at the start of the film. Classic exposition has little place in his films, as the very act of recapping what came before implies that those past actions need to be clarified instead of simply permitting them to permeate the present—the past’s influence on the chemistry of the current moment is enough. That Bongwan and Changsook may have broken up before the film’s beginning is not explained. The current state of affairs is that Bongwan is (1) in the doghouse with his wife, and (2) in need of a new assistant.
Enter Areum, played by Hong’s muse Kim Minhee. An aspiring writer and fan of Bongwan’s work, Areum appears to be the perfect woman for the job, but her new boss is more interested in her mere presence than what she actually brings to the table. Bongwan isn’t alone in behaving this way, and soon both his mistress and his wife find distinct ways of making Areum fit the role they need her to fill: Bongwan’s wife assumes Areum must be his mistress, and Changsook takes her for both a rival and a decoy.
They act this way out of convenience, ignoring her depth of feeling and emotional landscape (marked by family grief and an unsuccessful but determined writing career), so that their own lives can remain relatively neat, tidy and untroubled. The film’s other three main characters are mere shells next to Areum: a weak, philandering middle-aged man, a scorned wife, and a needy mistress. Projections are more easily imposed onto blankness than from it, and so the qualities they project onto Areum—conniving, expendable, unfeeling—speak in unusual measures to their own blindness rather than to her complexity.
It would be easy to read this more broadly as Hong asking the world at large to not speculate on Kim’s offscreen character, or to assume anything about her at all, particularly as those assumptions relate to her participation in an affair. Hong and Kim famously began dating after working together on Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), in which she played the filmmaker protagonist’s object of affection. Hong is now in the process of divorcing his wife for her, and Kim has been branded a homewrecker by the South Korean press.
In addition to The Day After and Right Now, Wrong Then, Kim starred in Hong’s On the Beach at Night Alone (2017), Claire’s Camera (2017), and Grass (2018). In both On the Beach and Claire’s Camera, Kim plays the part of a filmmaker’s other woman to the detriment of her employment, effectively setting the table for the muted pessimism of The Day After: Areum never gets involved with a married man, but is still punished by Bongwan, his wife, and his lover as if she had regardless.
But Kim’s characters aren’t victims, and so neither is Areum. Her actions are born out of choice, not necessity. When the situation at her new job starts to get weird, Areum could leave but chooses instead to stick around, seemingly almost as a favor to Bongwan. Her presence is a grace, whether or not those around her realize it.
Hong’s drunken meal scenes verge on the iconic, but one in The Day After stands out for its sobriety and clarity. After declining his attempts to share soju at lunch, Areum asks her boss, “Why do you live?” The question baffles him, and he replies that such talk merely amounts to “words” (and this coming from a writer!), with no correlation to reality. Areum insists that there is no living without believing in something worth living for, that reality is no obstacle to belief because “reality is unknowable.” Their theological volley is an unwitting attack on Bongwan’s weaknesses, but it also established Areum as someone full of faith, willing to believe in the universe as something larger than and outside of herself.
Much of Hong’s work employs elements of spirituality, but it’s usually woven into the structure of his films, not his characters. In Claire’s Camera, a Polaroid spits out different versions of Kim Minhee over the course of the film, as if peering into parallel timelines. Right Now, Wrong Then starts over at its own halfway mark, revealing an alternate (or, again, parallel) version of the central relationship had the characters acted ever-so-slightly different, slightly kinder. These temporal shifts dislodge Hong’s films from reality, opening the door for the spirit to slip in.
But The Day After is narratively linear, with the exception of a few early flashbacks that represent memories submitted as evidence and fixed on a relative timeline. This shifts the film’s emphasis away from the endless random possibilities of any given interaction between its characters, and towards a cycle of action and consequence. The film’s structure won’t save any of these characters—there are no Hongian do-overs here, no opportunities to right their wrongs—but it does substantiate their belief that something bigger than themselves will.
And so it’s through Areum’s spirituality and faith (in a faithless world) that she transcends her less-than-ideal circumstances. When she finally leaves the office after a very-bad-no-good first day, she takes a cab home. Schlepping a large bag of books taken from the office, Areum begins to read in the backseat before she’s interrupted by a faceless cab driver who’s sure that he’s seen her somewhere—she smiles graciously—and a sudden, spectacular snowfall. She rolls down her window, turns her face to the winter air, and declares the night a blessing. Hong doesn’t usually fuss over such incidental moments, instead prioritizing the more utilitarian rhythms of social interaction, but Areum marveling at the snow while reciting a prayer in her head, her loveliness in perfect harmony with the city around her, is as romantic an expression as any.