Time is indeed not “real,” that is, not linear, in many of Hong’s films. The scenes in Hill of Freedom, for example, proceed according to a stack a letters that have been accidentally dropped down the stairs, their chronology reshuffled. Sometimes Hong’s narrative unfolds almost entirely in flashbacks, as in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), sometimes half in dreams, as in Nobody's Daughter Haewon (2013). But it almost doesn’t matter, because there is never any visual cue alerting viewers to the temporal seams between present and past, waking life and dream. Herein lies the most intriguing part of Hong’s play with time: the apparent continuity between discontinuous moments and realms.
This continuity comes in part from the deceptive realism of Hong’s film world, which typically consists of creative types in Korea, messy romances, desolate vacations, long meals, circuitous conversations, and emotional outbursts after too much soju. These narratives play out across dreams, memories, and present realities without any shift in tone, texture, or logic.
The result is a world that possesses the unreality of a dream, but without the manifest strangeness of surrealism, only tickling oddities — a random dog, an overzealous window washer, funny coincidences and parallels — in situations that are otherwise perfectly, disarmingly quotidian. Paradoxically, this intensifies the mystery of each scene: Is this past or present? Dream or waking life? Where are we in time and consciousness?
This mystery hovers over The Day After (2017), Hong’s latest film to receive a US theatrical release. Shot in simple black and white, the film is part of a triptych Hong made last year, all starring the actress Kim Min-hee, and all more or less allusive to the real-life extramarital affair between Hong and Kim, which has received much media attention in South Korea. Unlike the other two films (Claire’s Camera and On the Beach at Night Alone), The Day After casts Kim in the role of an outside observer who becomes mistakenly entangled in another couple’s affair.
Time flows both ways in this film, beginning with the opening sequence. After feebly evading his wife’s accusations of infidelity, Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) steps out into a still-dark morning. Outside, the world is quiet, deserted, and transportive. Bongwan sets out from his apartment building alone, only to stumble back in the very next shot, arm in arm with a young woman. Everything looks the same (apart from Bongwan’s outfit), but we have shifted in time. After a maudlin scene between the two lovers in a stairwell, the film cuts to Bongwan crossing an empty street, alone once again. Later, on the train, the two lovers hold hands, before another cut: Bongwan, still on the train, now reads a book by himself.
Only later do we learn that these first scenes with Bongwan’s mistress and former assistant, Changsook (Kim Sae-byeok), are past moments in a relationship that has ended, interspersed with Bongwan’s solitary commute to work in the present day. With the arrival of Bongwan’s new assistant Areum (Kim Min-hee) at the office of his small publishing house, the film settles, for a moment, in the present. The two have coffee and awkward conversation in a four-minute long take, with the camera panning back and forth between them — Hong’s signature shot — before Areum heads to the bathroom, perhaps to escape Bongwan’s rather obtuse questions. In the next shot, the bathroom door is ajar and the hand dryer on, but the person who emerges after a moment isn’t Areum but Changsook. Unbeknownst to us, time has slipped backward again.
“[W]omen are the axis of time in the film,” Claire Denis observed of an earlier Hong film. “Women have their own time span […] It is as though these women are timing the film like a metronome.” Following the cryptic logic of this remark, Areum and Changsook seem to function as markers of time in The Day After. As the literal replacement for Changsook in the office, Areum signifies the present, a time when Changsook is already gone. Her status as Changsook’s stand-in becomes clear when Bongwan’s wife (Cho Yun-hee) mistakes her for the latter and attacks her in a fit of rage. Meanwhile, whenever Changsook appears on screen, we know we have been transported to some moment in the past, before Areum’s arrival.
But of course, this neat division does not hold for long. Toward the middle of the film, the impossible happens: Areum rounds a street corner to find Changsook and Bongwan locked in a tight embrace — Changsook, it turns out, has come back to reclaim her old life. For the first time, the two young women occupy the same space. Present and past, reality and memory seem, uncannily, to coexist on-screen.
As the three characters try to sort through the confusion in the scene that follows, viewers too must reorient themselves to a new temporal arrangement. Changsook gets her old job back and replaces Areum in the office, and the two switch positions in time: Areum now marks the past, Changsook the present. But before the film ends, Changsook exits once again. When, at some unspecified point in the future, Areum revisits the office in the final scene, Bongwan greets her with the same coffee and obtuse questions, before admitting sheepishly that he has forgotten who she is. There is thus no getting past the past. Time does not move forward, but rather circles itself in an endless loop.
In his writing on Hong Sang-soo, film scholar David Bordwell considers the Korean auteur in relation to other major filmmakers to emerge from East Asia in recent decades: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Jia Zhangke. Like Hong, these directors create episodic, elliptical narratives of quotidian life through long takes and a realist style. Bordwell groups them under the loose term “Asian minimalism,” without acknowledging that they are part of an international movement toward “slow cinema” that extends far beyond East Asia, which has dominated arthouse films since the 1990s, with practitioners as geographically diverse as Hungary’s Béla Tarr, Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the United States’s Kelly Reichardt, and Russia’s Aleksandr Sokurov. This “slow wave” traces its transnational roots to the early half of the 20th century, pulling inspiration from Yasujirō Ozu and the Italian neorealists.
Though by no means monolithic, works of slow cinema seem to share a common desire to materialize time, to produce what Gilles Deleuze calls the “time-image”: visions devoid of narrative function, which exist solely to render time visible and perceptible. Though these sometimes resemble simple transition shots, their length and centrality suggest something more. The paradigmatic time-image for Deleuze comes toward the end of Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), when the young female protagonist is quietly overcome with sorrow. Rather than focus on her, Ozu cuts away to a vase on the windowsill, partially bathed in moonlight, placed against gently swaying silhouettes of bamboo. This still shot lasts for 10 seconds and expresses nothing more than an awareness of time’s passage.
Such shots, however, do not really exist in Hong Sang-soo’s work. Despite his preference for the long take, Hong’s is not an aesthetic of austerity and contemplation. In fact, his long takes, usually of characters in conversation, feature frequent zooms and pans that dilute the durational effect of an unbroken shot. Unlike slow cinema in the Ozu tradition, then, Hong’s experiment with time is rarely felt in any single shot but rather in the arrangement of shots and scenes. Bordwell refers to this as Hong’s “geometric model” of storytelling — a more rigorous narrative structure than that employed by his Asian contemporaries — which carefully builds a hidden pattern of repetition and symmetry into the story. It’s this geometric storytelling, Bordwell argues, that sets Hong apart from his “Asian minimalist” peers.
But Bordwell perhaps does not go far enough. What sets Hong apart goes beyond narrative structure, and lies more fundamentally in his particular interest in time. Whereas slow cinema foregrounds time’s physical passage, Hong foregrounds its deeply subjective nature. His is not time that flows independently of the human subject, but time as remembered or dreamed, though not necessarily by any particular character. The Day After, for example, does not feature personal flashbacks; nevertheless, it follows a sequential logic that can only emerge in retrospect, when associations form between nonconsecutive moments. This is a kind of time only tenuously connected to the real.
“But what is reality?” Areum asks Bongwan during their first and only work lunch. “If reality is unknowable, then it must not exist.” “But reality does exist,” Bongwan insists. “Words can’t describe it, but we can feel it.” Both time and reality are notions we can’t live without, but which we also don’t live completely within. Recognizing this, Hong does not completely erase the temporal seams in his films, but renders them more open and porous. As he declared in one interview: “The fragments of memory, dream, imagination and fragments of reality are just different in name only, but they all share homogeneity.”
This mysterious homogeneity keeps Hong’s film world forever riveting, no matter how mundane the action. In his meditation on the intimate relationship between living and dreaming, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer writes: “Life and dreams are the pages of one and the same book.” In dreams, we don’t read the pages in order, but flip haphazardly to one here, one there. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer notes, “A page read separately is indeed out of sequence in comparison to the pages that have been read in order: but it is not so much the worse for that, especially when we bear in mind that a whole consecutive reading starts and finishes just as arbitrarily.”
If dreams are arbitrary, then reality is just as much so. Hong is interested in the alternative time of dream and memory, in which a story begins and ends elsewhere, straying from chronology. The Day After ends with a jump forward in time, when Areum revisits Bongwan’s publishing house. But in my memory of the film, the moment of closure comes before, in the penultimate scene.
It is dark and quiet as Areum heads home in the back of a cab, having just been fired after her first day. She reads a book and chats with the driver, whom we hear but do not see. Suddenly, snow flurries fill the night outside. Areum rolls down the window, entranced. “It’s such a blessing,” she says as she gazes out, layers of light and shadow streaming across her face. In a voice-over, we hear Areum pray to God. Here is the faith that she espoused over lunch, when she insisted to Bongwan: “Refusing that belief we urgently need, because of that illusion you call reality, isn't it silly of us?”
This may be as close to an expression of transcendence as possible for Hong, the master of nonsensical, minor, and irreverent things. Or perhaps, in the dream time of his film world, no transcendence is necessary, as the material and the spiritual have already merged — as lightly and disarmingly as past and present, dream and reality itself.
Xueli Wang is a writer from New York City. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Art History and Film & Media Studies at Yale University.