Friday, October 06, 2017

NYFF ’17: The Day After

Sure, there are exceptions, but by and large, people working in book publishing are ragingly neurotic and they drink like fish. Could there be another film director better suited to making a film set in a high-brow small press than Hong Sang-soo? In this case, the publisher also happens to be an unrepentant adulterer. Again, who better than Hong? News of his extramarital affair has scandalized Korea, but it has not slowed Hong’s prolific output. He has two new films at this year’s NYFF (how they missed out on Claire’s Camera starring fest fave Isabelle Huppert is rather baffling). Hong dials down the narrative gamesmanship in The Day After (trailer here), the less uncomfortably awkward of his two Main Slates selections screening at the 55th New York Film Festival.

Song Ah-reum is the sort of thoughtful, responsible employee a boutique literary house would be lucky to employ. Kim Bong-wan hired her because she was pretty. He just let his former assistant go, because his wife Song Hae-joo was starting to suspect they were having an affair, which they were. Unfortunately, Song Hae-joo storms into the office to deliver the Dynasty power-slap to her rival on Song Ah-reum’s first day.

Understandably, the new assistant is rather taken aback by the jealous wife’s torrent of abuse. Kim tries to convince her to stay despite the drama, until his former mistress-assistant Lee Chang-sook drops by to rekindle their affair. Since Song Hae-joo has never seen Lee, they hatch a scheme to return the real mistress to her former job, by pretending Song Ahreum really was the other woman, if she will agree to leave after only one day. It is not a particularly well thought out master-plan, but it evidently involves drinking a great deal of soju.

Even by Hong’s standards, Day After is small in scope, but it has a rarified air of sophistication and an unusually sharp edge. Somewhat ironically, the unfairly accused Song is played by Kim Min-hee, who has been absolutely pilloried in the Korean press after she and Hong came out with their relationship. Seriously, think Pitt-Anniston-Jolie raised to the power of fifty.

It is a shame outside events will inevitably color people’s perception of Day After, because this really is one of Kim’s finest performances. It is a wonderfully subtle and graceful turn. Ironically, you would expect such a wise and forgiving portrayal to come at the end of an affair rather than at the high point of media scrutiny.

As usual, Hong regular Kwon Hae-hyo is a gently amusing bundle of anxieties and hang-ups as the philandering Kim Bong-wan. Think of him as a Seinfeld character you could actually spend time with, especially with the soju flowing. He and Kim Min-hee share some wonderfully gawky scenes together. You could call it anti-chemistry, but they still play off each other beautifully.

Throughout Day After, Hong skewers male vanity and the hypocritical pretensions of the literary smart set. Kim Hyung-ku’s warm, glowing black-and-white cinematography also greatly heightens the feeling of intimacy. However, Hong fans will miss the narrative eccentricities of his recent films, like Hill of Freedom, Yourself and Yours, and Right Now, Wrong Then (also starring Kim Min-hee). Some might interpret it as an apology or a case of protesting too much, but we see it as a fair representation of book publishing. Recommended for admirers of Hong and literate, chamber dramas, The Day After screens tomorrow (10/7), Sunday (10/8), and the following Sunday (10/15) as part of this year’s NYFF.