When recalling his interview with Hong Sang-soo, director of The Day After, this year’s opening film at the London Korean Film Festival, film critic Tony Rayns remembers being baffled. Why? Well, Sang-Soo’s answers to every question put to him were something along the lines of ‘I don’t know.’
For a director whose movies are renowned for their depth and characters, and are permanent fixtures at prestigious film festivals—in fact, The Day After was in the running for the Palme D’or at Cannes this year, along with another of his features, Claire’s Camera—Hong Sang-soo ‘wings it’ way too often than one would think. If he feels like it, he does it. His work mirrors his eccentricity, and maybe that’s what makes it so great.
Shot entirely in black and white, The Day After is the story of the unhappily married Bongwan (Kwon Haehyo), whose wife discovers his affair on the very day he hires a new secretary, Areum (Kim Minhee). In a rage, she storms into his office and mistakes Areum for the ‘other woman.’ What ensues is a pathetic yet bemusing story as the weak-willed Bongwan struggles to deal with three women who refuse to submit to circumstances.
There are some things about The Day After that strike one immediately. For one, there is a permanent, pervasive voyeurism that clings to the viewer, making them feel like they’re invading someone’s personal life. Sang-soo’s camera follows his characters: it lingers on Bongwan’s retreating form as he treads down the stairs and enters a subway, pans from Areum’s hands to her face as she speaks. There are almost no cuts in the way, which seems primitive for a film-maker with twenty-something movies under his belt, but that’s just Sang-soo’s vision.
It could also, however, be because making a movie with Sang-soo is like driving with your eyes closed. According to Kim Hyungkoo, Sang-soo’s long-time colleague and The Day After’s cinematographer, the latter’s films almost always start with just the idea and a list of recommended locations. “Sometimes, he doesn’t write the script until the day we’re shooting the scene. It’s his ritual: he wakes up in the morning, goes to a café near his house, has a cup of coffee, and pens the scenes for the day,” said Hyungkoo in the session that followed The Day After’s premiere at LKFF.
What’s that like for the people on set?
“Mayhem,” Hyungkoo laughs, “The actors are all frantic, because they receive the script hours before the scene is due to be shot. It’s just as difficult for me, since I have limited time to work on making the shot look good on screen. The truth, though, is that you never have any time to plan things with Sang-soo.”
Yet, despite the madness he knew would follow, this was Hyungkoo’s eighth collaboration with Sang-soo. The first, Hyungkoo said, was in 2004, and it almost drove him up the walls. “A week into working with him, I thought to myself, ‘Never again’,” Hyungkoo smiled, but admitted that Sang-soo eventually grew on him.
“He taught me to look beyond the technicalities. There is an intrigue and adventurous exploration in working with him. There’s also an emptiness, because you only bring to set what you have.” Hyungkoo explained.
Looking at the apparently lackadaisical The Day After, that certainly is true. Normal is not the way Sang-soo does things. The movie does not even have any background music, save for a distorted, rough piano score that sounds as if it was whipped up at the last minute and recorded in the studio next door. Well, as it turns out, it was.
“I like to edit my films as I go along. Three or four days into making The Day After, I was editing and wanted music for some of the scenes I had,” Sang-soo told Rayns in their exchange. He belted out a rough score in the electronic piano in his production office, which is housed in the university where he teaches film. “Later on, people said they liked it as is, so we decided to keep it,” he explained.
With all its technical simplicity and loquacious philosophical banter over soju, by the time the final act comes together, The Day After presents an order through the chaos. Granted, it leaves one with more questions than answers, but looking at the characters and the setting, that was never Sang-soo’s purpose. Although made in wild abandon, the story never transcends the aftereffects of the fateful day in Bongwan’s life, leaving every viewer with his or her own interpretation. Was that, then, Sang-soo’s purpose? One could ask, but he probably won’t know.
The London Korean Film Festival is in London till November 26th. Find more information here. Check out the trailer below: