Dispatches from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival:

The Day After, Good Luck & Mrs. Fang

One of hyper-prolific Korean master Hong Sang-soo’s three 2017 world premieres, The Day After was the only one of the director’s latest trio selected for entry at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). While there probably was space for one or both of the others in a field of more than 250 features—considering their Berlin (On the Beach at Night Alone) and Cannes (Claire’s Camera) pedigrees, not to mention that they are all the products of the foremost auteur of our present decade—TIFF programmers at least managed to select what I have to assume is the right 2017 Hong film in his latest Cannes Competition title: The Day After is, in my humble estimation, a very strong contender for the best film of twenty-seventeen (as backhanded as that complement may be in a year that has thus far produced fewer masterpieces than any other year this century).

A major exception to that last parenthetical, The Day After again features Kim Min-hee, Hong’s real-world mistress and current muse—as the star of both the masterful Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) and this year’s self-referential On the Beach at Night Alone—albeit as a supporting performer for the director for the first time. Kim’s Song Areum is one of two young female publishing-house employees who find themselves linked to boss Kim Bongwan (Kwon Haehyo), a married middle-aged man who, at the time of Areum’s arrival, has recently broken things off with mistress Changsook (Kim Saebyuk). While that story description may sound straightforward enough, save to add that Bongwan’s wife suspects the prettier Areum of an affair with her husband, and not the departed Changsook, upon discovering an unaddressed letter from the publisher, Hong’s non-chronological form of narration achieves something very different, and far richer in effect.

Following a twilight set-piece that establishes Bongwan’s difficulties sleepinga ruse, as we will later learn, to meet up with his mistressHong quickly introduces us both to Changsook, on previous night like this one, and his new employee Areum, on her first day. As The Day After progresses, Hong alternates between these two times: an indistinct past with Changsook, and a single day in the present with Areum (as well as his wife). Hong judiciously avoids marking or introducing the specific temporality or relationship of these two story lines until well into his day with Areum; as viewers, we experience a film that almost seems to be presenting two stories at once, stories with the same male protagonist, but with different actresses occupying the other woman position. In this sense, we can see that Hong is elaborating upon the narrative structure of last year’s TIFF premiere, Yourself and Yours (2016), where two actress, That Obscure Object of Desire-style, played the same character; here, the strategy assumes a more classical valence, with the split roles introduced through formal manipulation rather than slippery casting.

That said, The Day After still maintains the qualities of subjectivity, of unreliable narration, that have long been the director’s hallmarks, with the film’s two simultaneous story lines essentially serving to call the other into disputeuntil, that is, that the two stories meet up, literally, outside of a bar. Min-hee’s lunchtime conversation with her new employer call our attention to Hong’s larger project of narrative destabilization, of producing a cinema where “reality” can never be defined, where there never is a ground, thanks to the fundamentally constructed quality of narration. This latter scene likewise (again explicitly) details another of the more visually immediate rationales for The Day After: to savor the properties of natural light that were manifest in the film’s winter-season shoot. 

Speaking of winter, The Day After compels another comparison to the director’s earlier work: this time with The Day He Arrives (2011), which is far too close in not only title, but also in their shared snowy winter season, a-chronological narrative organization, and black-and-white lensing, which the director has continued to alternate, periodically, in recent years, with his more frequent color features. In The Day After, Hong and cinematographer Kim Hyung-ku have created one of the director’s more luxuriously aesthetic objectsa point, again, that he generously allows Min-hee to make.

That last point, I think, is an important if easy to miss one with respect to The Day After: namely, that this film offers a wholly generous and sympathetic portrait of her character, even if it is only in support as she herself notes, and as Bongwan’s subsequent response to her confirms after an unspecified period of separation. (Here we too have another repetition of dialogue, a Hong motif, which rather than proceeding from another narrative, is instead classicized or transformed into something that can be rationalized through the psychology of the lead’s character in particular.) This really is his film, in the end, his story, which plays like two subjective alternatives, to the point that they come togetheronly to be separated one from the other, once again, in the film’s final moments.

All of this is to insist on Hong’s continued, masterful ability to remake his familiar idiom through new approaches to narrative structure, in this case refined through Right Now, Wrong ThenYourself and YoursOn the Beach at Night Alone; and of course, it’s near namesake, The Day He Arrives. It is a work of both summation and specificity, both for its novel structural interventions, ala French New Wave master Jacques Rivette, and the concrete particularity of the film’s self-acknowledged qualities of natural light (Hong’s long-standing relationship to Rohmer again becomes clear), along side the sleepy, dreamlike impressions of day that is unfolding after far too little sleep. 

The Day After was the first film I saw at TIFF 2017, establishing a very high bar for the remaining festival. While neither quite matches the moment-to-moment level of destabilized brilliance of Hong’s film, Ben Russell’s Good Luck (pictured) and Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang nonetheless each still represents a significant original achievement (no small matter in twenty-seventeen), and needless to say, both are very worthy inclusions in this year’s TIFF. Beginning with Russell’s poetical non-fictional, which like Wang’s major prize-winner bowed at this year’s Locarno festival, Good Luck ethnographically explores present-day mining experiences in Eastern Europe (Bor, Serbia) and the global south (Suriname), in its two consecutive halves. In this sense, which is to say in its essential structure, Good Luck maintains a dialectical organization, contrasting the 400-foot vertical depth of the Bor copper mine with the polluted if picturesque watery runoff of the South American country’s surface gold mines; the pitch black caves with the tropical palms and sunlight; the well-oiled (pun intended) state-owned apparatus against the chaotic Suriname corollary; Bor’s heavy machinery versus Suriname’s cobbled-together combustion engines; the gear of the Europeans and the South American’s want of the same; the brass ensemble of the Serbians and the song of the Surinamese, and on and on. Cultural difference and economic disparity is never absent from the film’s discourse, particularly after we enter the time of the film’s second part.

Of course, given that the film does divide in two, we do not focus on this comparison throughout the 140-plus minute feature’s more lengthy first half. Here, we are greeted rather by a way of life that Russell’s film emphatically establishes as a product not just of human past, but as a living reality in twenty-first century global life. To ask the question of why a dialectal film about mining today is to immediate answer it in the concrete affirmative that Good Luck presents, of the incredible, unmappable spaces lit only by the miners’ small headlamps, of the void that these men enter every day, and on the surface, on the other side of the world, in the murky, copper-colored waters where the much younger men prospect in hopes of luck, of finding the tiniest fragments of ore. Both astonishing in their essential, fear-inspiring qualities, and also landscapes, both visually and audible, of preternatural poetic beauty.

Ultimately, Good Luck is an object of drawn-out duration, of the long journeys down and up the shaftthe latter providing moments that verge on pure found abstractionthe equally extended explorations of the unseen (which the uncanny tossing of stones reveals to be anything but intelligible, in a wonderfully disconcerting sense), and the long manual haul of a tank that compels the carrier to momentarily set it down to find his grip. Good Luck is the inheritor, within the context of the American experimental cinema, of Andy Warhol, both for these passages of extreme temporal excess, but also, and far more directly, for the black-and-white “screen tests” that punctuate both of the film’s halves. Controlled by the workers who are the subjects of these silent descendants of the visual artist-cum-filmmaker, Russell lends not only a dignity but also a glamour to Good Luck’s human subjects.

Wang’s Locarno Golden Leopard-winner, Mrs. Fang, is also a film about the face, in its case the lone visage of Fang Xiuying, as she slowly loses her battle to Alzheimer’s in a poor Zhejiang, China village. For most of the non-fiction film’s 86-minute length, following a short contextualizing preface, Wang depicts his subject in a position of near-catatonia, lying almost motionless on bed, her eyes open and mouth agape as she has lost any ability to communicate with the family that attends to her day and night. With only the smallest variations in her appearance materializing over the course of her film, her surrounding loved ones speculate on her mental state and her physical sufferingthe latter with more certainty and plausibility than the former. What Mrs. Fang thus establishes is a contemplation of the interior, through an implacable surface, when we the viewer can no longer be certain of what exists for Fang.

Mrs. Fang, in this respect, belongs to the same, face-focalized subset of the director’s work that also includes Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007), though to quite opposite ends: where Mrs. Fang shows a woman stripped, through her lack of communication and interpersonal acknowledgement, of a recognizable interior life, the testimonial Fengming introduces the viewer to a woman possessed of extraordinary mental faculty and skills of recollection, who lives every day with the details of her former sufferings. In this case, then, Mrs. Fang is closer to the director’s work in ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), which focused on the residents of large state mental institutionand on subjects, therefore, whose mental faculties and thought processes are not always immediately discernible to the spectator.

If Mrs. Fang does not quite achieve the heights of either of the aforesaid major achievements by the directorit is for the latest film’s occasional departures from Fang, which though welcome in the experience of viewing the film, nonetheless sacrifice the consistency of pursuit that is present in each of the two much longer features. Even so, Wang has created a work of astonishing human mystery, of true wisdomwhile also furthering his position as the most prolific major contemporary auteur this side of Hong Sang-soo.

***

For Toronto readers, The Day After screens to the public on Wed., Sept. 13; Thurs., Sept. 14; and Sat., Sept. 16. Good Luck plays Mon., Sept. 11 and Wed., Sept. 13. And Mrs. Fang screens Wed., Sept. 13 and Friday, Sept. 15. For more details including ticketing information, visit the TIFF home page.

For those in Oklahoma City, as distributors and/or other opportunities arise that will allow these films to shown locally, rest assured that Museum Films will do exactly that.