Perhaps there’s no better way to introduce Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo than a story New York Film Festival programmer Kent Jones told last year while discussing his choices for that year’s main slate, which included Hong’s film Yourself and Yours. French actress Isabelle Huppert received a call from Hong just before she left for Cannes 2016; he was asking if she was available to shoot a movie the next week. She explained that she would be at Cannes. He said he would fly over immediately. She said she would be there for only eight days. Perfect, he replied.

The film that resulted from those eight days in the hills of Cannes, Claire’s Camera, is not at this year’s festival, but two of his other films are: The Day After and On the Beach at Night Alone. This feat feels like the culmination of both a nearly inhuman prolificacy in the past decade as well as his omnipresence at the festival (the main slate has featured at least one Hong film a year since Jones became director of NYFF in 2012). But his two works feel like culminations in other ways too, messing with Hong’s usual structures while asserting themselves as two of the most deeply personal and mysterious entries in his filmography—no small feat considering his oeuvre repeatedly finds Hong at once revealing himself and masking himself.

First, The Day After. Shot digitally in black-and-white, a format on which Hong seems to have an artistic monopoly (I have never seen another director use it so beautifully), the film tells the story of a publisher at a small company who is recovering from a failed extramarital affair, which his wife confronts him about in the film’s opening. He hires a new employee at his company, and various complications ensue as his work life and personal life become entangled in unexpected ways.

A straightforward set-up, but Hong jumbles the narrative timeline just enough to prevent passive viewing; it sometimes took me the length of an entire scene to figure out exactly where it fit within the plot. He constructs a narrative that follows an emotional logic rather than a temporal one, with each scene taking a thread or feeling from the previous scene and extending it, playing on it, or providing a counterpoint to it. As with Eric Rohmer, a figure he is often compared to, Hong structures the small dramas of people’s lives to create a dissonance between the character’s interpretations of their reality and the audience’s. His technique—which involves juxtaposing moments separated in time but connected in some deeper, spiritual manner—places the audience in a position of power by giving them a view of the larger design of these character’s lives. A perfect example of this occurs in the coda of The Day After when a time jump shows two characters reuniting after a months-long separation. The audience remembers how a line spoken no less than an hour earlier in the film reflects a key decision made in this man’s life; however, he is unable to remember the speaker of that line, despite the fact that she is sitting right in front of him.


On the Beach at Night Alone, a more linear project, still manages to be just as beguiling as The Day After. The film has a classic Hongian bisected structure, but the film’s two halves are uneven—the first part of the film is about 20 to 30 minutes, while the second part comprises the remainder of the 100-minute runtime. The film follows an actress, Young-hee, who goes to Hamburg to sort out her feelings after an affair with an acclaimed director. She returns home to Gangneung, a coastal city in South Korea, in the film’s second part. This kind of double travelogue gives rise to a much more languid, almost lazy Hong film. Still, if it feels like each scene is doing less work than the rigidly constructed The Day After, the cumulative effect of it all is just as great, creating a portrait of a woman who feels increasingly isolated and alienated from those around her. There is a sense in which her melancholy seems to permeate or infect the entire work, making it difficult to make any claims towards an objective reality that exists outside her viewpoint (when the second half begins with her seated alone in a theater after the first half’s abrupt and absurd conclusion, we are not remiss to assume her entire excursion to Hamburg was some sort of strange movie-fantasy playing out in her mind). If The Day After is interested in producing a dialectic between its characters’ worldviews and psychologies, On the Beach at Night Alone is interested in one character’s place in the world, using the other characters largely as conduits into Young-hee’s psychology. This approach culminates in the film’s climax, which, as it turns out, is a dream—her most revealing moment of vulnerability, honesty, and anger is directed towards a man she has created, or recreated, in her mind.

26 films into his career, Hong has perfected a style of shooting so simple and effective that it’s a wonder no other prominent director has yet attempted to rip it off. Scenes are, without exception, shot in one or two long takes. He tends to begin on an image of a location, which then incorporates the characters into the frame, either having them enter from offscreen or moving the camera to accommodate their presence elsewhere in the space. The dialogue then begins with a master shot (they are often seated at a table and drinking soju). When he wants to focus in on an element in the frame, he’ll simply zoom, often to a character’s face when something significant is being said. There’s a sense, in his work, that no one image or idea of his world could possibly contain all that it is—he has to constantly adjust to account for the infinitely changing dynamics of the space, to always provide another perspective on the events unfolding onscreen.

One final note, and a sort of elephant in the room: both films star Kim Min-hee, who Hong first worked with on 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then, and with whom he began an extramarital affair that resulted in the end of his thirty-year marriage. This turn of events became a major story for the South Korean tabloids, thrusting Hong into the spotlight in a new way, despite the tremendous reputation he has both at home and abroad. That both of his new films are about the aftermath of extramarital affairs may contribute to the sense that, after years of quietly producing one of the best filmographies in world cinema without finding an audience outside his loyal niche, this is finally Hong’s moment; unlike his prior, undefinable oddities, his most recent films have easily marketable hooks and a sense of real world urgency.

Yet, I would step away from applying the lens of autobiography too strongly on these works. For one, both films are about failed affairs—as far as anyone is aware, Hong and Kim are still together. Second, Hong has said that, while he often uses his life as an inspiration for his ideas, he does not want to, or claim to, make films about himself or his situation. While trusting a director to accurately explicate his art has proven time and again to be foolish, that distinction nonetheless seems like a more appropriate way to approach his work. His work expresses the personal not through exact details or parallels but rather through osmosis, innately allowing his own reality to encroach upon his otherwise hermetic universes. The Day After and On the Beach at Night Alone, seen together as companion pieces, display these tendencies—tendencies towards a closed-off and an open cinema, perhaps—better than just about any of his films, the former among his most impressive structural objects, the latter among his most natural and spontaneous evocations of existence.