Hong Sang-Soo’s latest film is one of his eeriest and most understated, playing out in a calm and hermetic black-and-white universe that initially seems fairly minimal, but gradually reveals unsettling and unexpected dimensions. At the heart of it is Kim, played by Kwon Hae-hyo, a celebrated Seoul editor who takes on a new assistant, Song, played by Kim Min-hee. The first part of the film traces their developing professional rapport, as well as the way it intersects with Kim’s marriage to Lee, played by Kim Sae-byok, as well as his relationship with his previous assistant, also called Song, plated by Jo Yoon-hee. At first, Kim’s investment in Song seems purely professional, and even fatherly, as he introduces her to the business of editing and recommends one writer after another, while taking the time to be suitably impressed and respectful of her credentials as well. Yet his relation to her grows more unsettled as the film proceeds, as Hong gradually complicates the timeline, until it emerges that Song is just the latest in a long line of assistants, and that Kim has performed this role of fatherly intellectual many times before. Yet the effect is never exactly of an expose either, since part of the eeriness of the film is that Kim doesn’t even seem fully aware of his predatory tendencies, even when he explicitly plots to undermine Song in order to appease his wife, continually confusing his intellectual aspirations with his more venal ambitions largely because nobody ever seems to have demanded him to differentiate them.
All that is shot in quite a modest, unadorned, low-budget style, suffused with a matter-of-factness that often feels modelled on the French New Wave in its deceptive transparency and simplicity. While the film may not actually involve a square aspect ratio, it often feels as if it does, as Hong boxes in the narrative until there’s virtually nobody in the frame apart from the main characters, even or especially when they’re outside or in public spaces. On the few occasions when we do glimpse other people, they’re only ever in the remote distance, as the public sphere of Seoul, and the world outside these four characters, is completely quashed, giving the entire film the feel of a stage play. In some ways, that eerie hush is not unlike the muted depictions of Gangnam that anchor Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning, except that here there is no panoramic or expansive vision of Seoul to offset that intensely introspective mood, as the characters seem to be moving through a city that they have dreamed up between the four of them, rather than an actual, embodied global metropolis.
As a result, The Next Day plays as a bedsitter film, more suited to the intimacy of the small screen than a big screen, or at least demanding a small theatre for its impact to be fully felt, since even the most professional and public spaces here take on the heightened tactility and texture of the bedroom. While there may be four people in the film, this generally feels like a two-hander, with Hong structuring most scenes around long conversations in which the camera moves back and forth between two participants. Although most of the film takes place during the day, it always feels set at night, since there’s virtually no ambient noise, while the interior sequences are completely silent apart from the dialogue, and tend to be devoid of windows or sources of natural light, hermetically isolated from the external world. Conversely, the few sequences set outdoors at night are so luminously vacant of anything resembling a public sphere that they don’t even seem to be taking place in realistic physical space at all, as Hong abstracts the urban syntax of Seoul to a few recurring motifs – stairs, empty lots, rows of street lights – that disorient as much as they establish place and mood.
Within such a cerebral space, it’s almost inevitable that the dialogue should turn philosophical, as Kim and Song develop their rapport through one existential question after the next, most of which turn on the tactility and tangibility of reality itself (“What does reality mean?” “If you can’t grasp it, it’s not real”). Initially, this imbues Kim, in particular, with a certain philosophical gravitas, and a dignified hush that seems to precede him whenever he enters a room. To some extent, the stillness of the film compounds that, and yet Hong’s periodic zooms and lateral pans means that the frame never quite settles into a stately stasis, just as Kim never quite achieves the gravity he’s aiming for, resulting in a film that – despite its best intentions – remains just a little off-centre. If The Day After embodies Kim’s conception of himself, then it’s a conception that never quite convinces, since while virtually every scene might feature two characters facing each other – one of whom is usually Kim – the camera never quite adopts a symmetrical position, or manages to make the way in which Kim holds himself seem stable, especially as the timeline starts to dissolve.
Similarly, while Kim may repeat the same thing over and over again, it never quite creates the sense of calm, or formalist repose, that he seems to be aiming for, but instead corrodes the gravity he is trying to construct around himself, even or especially when he seems most assured that he has achieved that gravity. As his benign, boss-like confidence gradually devolves into something more unsettling, the relation between his old and new assistants comes into focus as part of a pattern that everyone around him would be able to see in a more conventional film, but remains strangely submerged here due to the limited cast. Brilliantly structuring the story so that the threshold between past and present is both distinct and diffuse, Hong subliminally takes the rapport between Kim and Song that started out so idiosyncratic and turns it generic – or, rather, renders it idiosyncratic and generic at the same time, which is exactly the mode that Kim seems to revel in, since it makes each encounter feel unique but also makes him feel in control of each encounter at the same time. And in that gesture and unusual tonality it also feels as if Hong is gesturing towards some inexorable limit to auteurism itself, as well as some inexorable limit to the artistic voice – especially the male artistic voice – no matter how bountiful it may seem; a vision of the day after auteurism, in which all the pieces of the auteurist voice are still largely intact, but their relation to each other, and the world around them, dissociates with each moment.