Returning to black and white for the first time since The Day He Arrives (which screened in Un Certain Regard in 2011), Hong Sangsoo returns to the Cannes competition section with The Day After, a focused rumination on love and betrayal which is, much like his other 2017 films On the Beach at Night Alone and fellow Cannes-invitee Claire's Camera, an act of bitter self-reflection.
A literary critic and small publishing house boss is confronted by his wife, who believes him to be pursuing an affair with his employee. Unbeknownst to her, the woman has left her position, only to be replaced by another young woman. Mistaken the new employee for her husband's mistress, she attacks the worker when she visits the publishing house.
The Day After begins on one of the darkest notes of a Hong film, as a woman serves her husband breakfast before dawn and asks him, jokingly at first, whether the reason for his leaving home so early in recent months is because of another woman. When he unable to answer and repeatedly stares down at his bowl of soup, she breaks down.
A few scenes later it's the mistress who bursts into uncontrollable tears over a drunken dinner when she admonishes the man for being a coward as she repeatedly hurls the word at him between her broken wails.
Frequent Hong acolyte Kwon Hae-yo plays the hapless cad with both an easy charm when the going's good but when things start to crumble around he becomes silent and hesitant before launching into a string of weak lies and eventual outright self-defense.
For the third Hong film on the trot (and fourth overall since 2015's Right Now, Wrong Then) Kim Min-hee leads the show. This time around it isn't her character who is involved in an affair, though curiously she is physically attacked all the same. At first polite and well-composed when she begins her job, the stress of the situation she finds herself in, especially combined with the tidbits we learn about her life and family, starts to manifest themselves in physical and vocal mannerisms as she slowly her ability to lose her composure.
To say that The Day After is a fiercely personal work is a moot point at this point in Hong's career, but unlike the sporadic sputter of Claire's Camera, Hong's 21st film goes deeper than much of his recent output and benefits from focusing on a small group of troubled characters. Whether you can stomach it or not, it's hard to deny that Hong's continuing journey of introspection is a fascinating one.