Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
In ye olden days a critically-lauded director like Hong Sang-Soo might have gained a public profile beyond the film festival world; his movies are distinctive, recognizably his, and just difficult enough to remind you that you’re seeing something outside the multiplex. I can’t see that Hong’s work is breaking through to the mainstream, despite the undeniable charm of being a recent Film Comment cover boy. That’s a shame, because this prolific filmmaker (three movies released in 2017) is not only doing something cinematically distinctive, he’s also providing a great deal of pleasure.
His 2017 film The Day After plays May 25-27 at the Northwest Film Forum. It’s a typical work, both amusing and sneakily emotional, and rendered in lovely black and white. The story revolves around an extremely weak-willed writer/publisher (Kwon Hae-hyo), whose wife has just intuited that fact that he’s having an affair; the other woman (Kim Sae-byuk) worked in his office, but has apparently been gone for a month. We meet a young woman (Kim Min-hee, whose performance in On the Beach at Night Alone was maybe the best of 2017) who will replace the mistress at the office—and the way the boss treats her during her first day on the job, he may be thinking about replicating the extra-marital adventure. Then things become complicated. The film has its share of glorious moments, especially when extremely serious things happen that nevertheless play as cosmically funny. You could almost believe there’s a system in place that arranges these misadventures around the writer’s life—and “believing” in something is a central concern of the film’s characters. This is a terrific movie, even though it seems slight.
Hong’s films often have a slim premise, and most of them are more tantalizingly surreal than The Day After. They’re akin to the work of Yasujiro Ozu and Eric Rohmer, in a couple of senses anyway: they maintain a very similar tone from film to film, and they are sometimes hard to tell apart. The latter observation is not meant as a knock—Ozu and Rohmer are two of my favorite filmmakers—but as a way of suggesting how the director’s consistent view of the world creates an imaginative cosmos in which ideas and situations are re-visited and re-examined. In fact, Hong’s films re-visit similar situations within the same movie, as he sometimes plays with storylines that seem to be (though without explicit explanation) coming from alternate, or parallel, universes.
For instance, in Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)—one of Hong’s best, methinks—the first half of the film is taken up with the way a movie director kills time while visiting a town for a film event, meeting a young woman and participating in mutual flirting. Inexplicably, the second half of the film shows the same day playing out in a consistently different way, with—I think—a crucial difference: In the first half, the director is dishonest about his life, and in the second he’s more forthcoming. This makes a profound difference in how the scenarios play out. It’s a little like Alain Resnais’ mind-bending pair of 1993 films, Smoking and No Smoking, adapted from Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, which run through a myriad of possible story turns based on whether a character lights up a cigarette at the beginning or not.
If you want to scour Scarecrow’s shelves for more of Hong’s films (they’ve got Smoking/No Smoking too), here are links to a few of my past reviews that have opened in Seattle.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.