If any director should have two films in the official selection at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it may as well be shaggy Korean iconoclast Hong Sangsoo — a prolific auteur for whom doubling and déjà vu are recurring concerns in his narratives, not to mention for viewers trying to keep pace with his oeuvre. Luckily, there’s little chance of confusing these non-identical twins, even if both star Hong’s current muse Kim Minhee: While “Claire’s Camera” boasts color, French Riviera sunshine and the crossover presence of Isabelle Huppert, his Korean-set Competition entry “The Day After” carries a brisk, wintry monochrome chill. Notwithstanding the external drop in temperature, the latter is breezy business as usual: a loquacious, Rohmer-kissed comedy of missed chances and misunderstandings, in which matters of the heart are drawlingly discussed over lashings of soju. Lacking the emotional and structural complexity of some recent Hong outings, it’s minor even by his minor-key standards, though regular acolytes will drink up.
Cannes programmers may have wrongfooted attendees slightly with their placement of this year’s Hongs. Premiering out of competition the day before “The Day After” — now there’s a Hong title waiting to happen — the droll 68-minute divertissement “Claire’s Camera” appeared to be a mere appetizer for fans, with one of his headier main courses to follow. As it turns out, “The Day After” is a bit longer but hardly weightier. Conceived chiefly as a static series of seated two-person conversations, it’s both stylistically and thematically his simplest film in several years — even Kim Hyungkoo’s black-and-white lensing is more functional than formal. The usual charms apply; they’re just stretched a little thin by the 90-minute mark.
As with many a Hong joint, the story here could really be written on the back of a postcard, with space to spare for drunken terms of endearment. The romantic peccadilloes of Bongwan (Kwon Haehyo), the married manager of an independent publishing house, have created something of a revolving door at the office. Recently, a lengthy affair with his employee Changsook (Kim Saebyuk) has turned sour, causing her to quit her job. Arriving to take her place, oblivious to the circumstances behind the vacancy, is Areum (Kim Minhee), a bright, sensitive aspiring writer who seems securely resistant to Bongwan’s debatable charms. Yet on her very first day, she suffers for her boss’s sins anyway: Having found an old love letter between her husband and Changsook, Bongwan’s wife Haejoo (Cho Yunhee) turns up unannounced at the office and, mistaking Areum for the other woman, full-bloodedly attacks her. The position is, shall we say, short-lived.
On this best form, Hong would make this anecdotal tale of woe a jumping-off point for more complicated games of human nature, but “The Day After” never quite transcends its essential smallness: Intriguing character details, like Areum’s strong religious faith or Bongwan’s rigorous critical sensibility, that promise to grow into more searching thematic inquiries are left mostly unscratched. And while Kwon gets the most to work with of the four principal players, savoring a number of rice liquor-glazed monologues on male romantic befuddlement and self-pity, the women benefit less from the film’s sad-sack sympathies: In particular, the bitterly scorned Haejoo comes off, perhaps unfairly, as a figure of fun.
Even lesser Hong has its lackadaisical pleasures, and “The Day After” has its share of wry musings and twitchy banter between characters to counter its visual stasis and lulling storytelling. It attains a kind of grace, however, in its final act, which all but replays an earlier encounter — Hong’s favorite narrative party trick — in a bittersweet spirit of rapprochement, via an absurd, farcical case of mislaid memory. Kim Minhee’s unique capacity for bemused sadness, more generously showcased in Hong’s last two features, comes to the fore, and with it, this deliberately hiccuping chatterfest finds its lyrical, sorrowful side — a Hong Sung Blue, if you will. It’s not enough to make this Hong Sangsoo film linger in the memory far beyond, well, the day after, but another like it will be along to remind us soon enough.