Hong Sang-soo’s twelfth film offers more drinks, smokes and women, along with a wonderfully playful approach that blends the unexpected into reality.
The characters in a Hong Sang-soo film seem to be perpetually stuck in limbo of Hong’s own self-reflective construction. The Day He Arrives may have been one of the most acclaimed Korean films of 2011, playing Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, making its Australian debut at the 60th Melbourne International Film Festival alongside Oki’s Movie, itself the closing film of the 67th Venice Film Festival. The love that the industry has for Hong comes from the filmmaker’s own love of cinema, something he paints into every one of the many productions he is behind. If his characters are not outright making films, then they are surrounded by people who do.
The Day He Arrives falls into Hong’s broad category of films about filmmakers who are no longer able to make films. Former filmmaker Seong-jun (regular star Yoo Jun-sang), now an academic, arrives in Seoul to meet a friend. When his colleague is no longer able to meet at the arranged time, he begins to wander about, at first drinking with a group of students before turning up teary-eyed at the apartment of an ex-girlfriend (Kim Bo-kyung). Despite continually running into an actress he knows, he winds up with his friend at a bar called Novel, where the owner bears a striking similarity to his ex-girlfriend. This is, in fact, because she is also played by Kim Bo-kyung. Time becomes an abstract concept as the film moves forward, and despite Seong-jun’s constant movement, the amount of time he spends in Seoul seems increasingly elongated.
Hong’s films have always held a certain fascination with all of the aspects of modern life, including the broader themes of isolation amongst a group urban characters. The Day He Arrives is no different, although here the motif of repetition is used to mirror the main character’s state of mind as well. Whether it is the actress from his past repeatedly running into Seong-jun on the street, the doppelgängers who form his love interests or the mere acts of smoking, drinking and talking, Seong-jun can’t seem to escape the past he seems determined to put behind him. Then again, he has deliberated placed himself in a situation where he will continually be confronted with those totems of the past, heightening his own frustration with the situation.
It becomes unclear as to whether scenes are taking place on the same day or several days into the trip. Even Seong-jun confesses he isn’t sure how long he is staying. This ultimately brings the film’s central theme of facing the present sharply into focus for both the character and the audience. Hong’s The Day He Arrives is deceptively simple, the apparently freewheeling style belying the complexity of the human interactions on display. Blending humour and melancholy seamlessly, just as they are in reality, Hong once again proves that he is a master of human observation.
The Day He Arrives played at the Korean Film Festival in Australia in August/September 2012. Full disclosure: The Reel Bits is a media partner of KOFFIA, but opinions on films are unswayed by this relationship.