Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After homes in on the similarities between job interviews and dates, mining them for a comedy of romantic alienation and autobiographical rumination. In the tradition of many of Hong’s protagonists, Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is an acclaimed creative at a crossroads with the women in his life, implicitly feeling that his professional success grants him a right to his self-absorption. Bong-wan, a married book publisher, has three attractive women circling him throughout the film, which is a dream that becomes a castrating nightmare. Over the course of coffee and soju-drenched meals, these women demand that Bong-wan account for himself, as The Day After is a study of his increasingly inadequate deflections.
Hong shows how each of these women allows Bong-wan to behave differently as a person, casually elucidating how people grow tired of playing the personas they’ve assumed for their lovers. Speaking to his wife, Hae-joo (Jo Yoon-hee), Bong-wan is often elusive and passive-aggressive. Sitting across from Hae-joo at their kitchen table early in the morning, Bong-wan eats and regards Hae-joo’s inquiries into his infidelity with pregnant laughter and an increasing preoccupation with his food. This is a portrait of a marriage in which the woman knows the man’s tricks and the man, knowing she knows said tricks, barely continues to bother with explanatory theater.
Bong-wan’s duets with his mistress, Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk), show two sides of the man: In flashbacks, Bong-wan and Chang-sook are seen in the heat of passion and, later, in a tailspin in which she calls him a self-delusional coward. We see a slide in which a woman goes from worshipping Bong-wan to resenting him—a path that Hae-joo presumably knows all too well. Bong-wan also initiates a new and young employee, Areum (Kim Min-hee), into the practices of his prestigious publishing firm, which he conducts with a comical inappropriateness that parallels his initial seduction of Chang-sook. Occasionally holding Areum’s hand, Bong-wan suggests that they discard formal speech. Areum’s filling the vacancy left by Chang-sook after Bong-wan’s relationship with her fell apart, and so we suspect that Bong-wan might be grooming Areum for more than one role in his life.
Areum represents the flush and rush of flattery and attraction that first characterizes Bong-wan’s rapport with women, before they demand a glimpse behind the curtain of charm that’s intended to allow him to coast on his professional reputation. It doesn’t take long for Areum to grow disenchanted, as her first day at Bong-wan’s firm is defined by a series of catastrophes in which his personal and professional lives collapse in on themselves. Bong-wan’s potential relationship with Areum, whether personal or professional, is ruined because he’s robbed of the intoxication of her adulation.
Hong dramatizes this complex and thorny narrative with characteristic lucidity, structuring it as a series of conversations between the four principal characters, who duel in alternating pairs and triples that all involve Bong-wan, for whom there are few moments of comfort. As with most Hong films, The Day After engages in intellectual gamesmanship while courting emotional pathos, representing its hero’s own attempt to rationalize behavioral chaos with tidy structures and neat justifications. Hong uses a distinctive formality that’s designed to highlight its own inadequacy—a daring, self-interrogating hat trick that he’s managed to pull off with stunning consistency over the years, forging a cumulative tapestry of the frailties of the creative male ego.
The conservations in the film are organized so as to reveal how each woman refuses, sometimes inadvertently, to allow Bong-wan to escape revelations that other women have unearthed. Hong braids conversations together through incantatory phrases, and interviews and dates are rhymed via their occupation with personal evaluation. Bong-wan may be the boss by title, but he’s the true candidate under scrutiny here, applying for approval and mercy. When Areum says that her deceased older sister was a beautiful person, it echoes a moment when Chang-sook says the same of Bong-wan at the height of their passion, during a tryst in a stairwell. When Areum says that Bong-wan’s lucky to be able to write so well, it recalls the first scene between Bong-wan and Hae-joo, when she bitterly tells him that he’s lucky to be happy. Over the course of The Day After, Bong-wan’s relationship with Chang-sook falls apart twice, and, in both aftermaths, another woman observes that Bong-wan’s face looks different, perhaps relieved.
Hong’s camera complements his self-lacerating dialogue, often emphasizing its presence via movement. When the conversations are tranquil, such as when Bong-wan’s enjoying Areum’s flattery as an admirer of his work, the characters are placed in symmetrical medium shots. When the women turn on Bong-wan, most memorably when Areum chastises him for his intellectual parlor games—which mask a belief in nothing or no one—the camera pointedly pans back and forth between the characters, suggesting verbal tennis matches that Bong-wan can never manage to win. The succinct and supple blocking suggests that this city is populated only by these characters, who’re often cordoned off to themselves in vast pockets of negative space, the loneliness heightened by the plaintive black-and-white cinematography.
The Day After’s recurring phrases and direct camerawork subtly establish that women are essentially all the same to Bong-wan, serving as granters of fleeting pleasure who morph into accusers—a nuance that’s particularly emphasized in the final dialogue, which initially suggests one of Hong’s time-bending twists only to be revealed as a heartbreakingly callous lapse in Bong-wan’s memory. Women are a complement to the persona that Bong-wan craves, which is of the settled, erudite, yet approachably humble man of arts and letters. When Areum rhetorically outflanks Bong-wan, castigating the fashionable atheism of intellectuals and insisting on the nourishing centrality of belief, he cedes defeat with a humility that’s both feigned and condescending, as if he’s giving her this win. Bong-wan can’t see how wonderful it might be if he could actually discern Areum’s point and see her for who she is, rather than regarding her as another beautiful hanger-on.
Hong and Kwon elaborate on a wide range of male defense tactics, but it’s this faux-humility that’s most haunting, as it telegraphs Bong-wan’s loneliness and illusion of himself as a powerless foil for these women, despite having the power to hold them emotionally hostage with his aloofness. Shackled by self-loathing, he believes that he’s extending himself to them, unable to see that he’s really rendered himself a phantom as well as a metaphorical director. When a woman fails to play the role Bong-wan needs, he hires another, enacting an endless process of fleeting pleasure and lasting recrimination.