Director: Sang-soo Hong
By Roderick Heath
Korean filmmaker Sang-soo Hong has been quietly creating a name for himself for the past two decades amongst a fairly rarefied film audience, with his meticulously made, small-scale studies in contemporary cinema that are as much about their own creative vicissitudes as they are about their nominal stories and subjects. Hong’s Cannes competitor from last year (this year, it’s Another Country) and one of this year’s best-reviewed releases, The Day He Arrives is a beguiling entry in a style that is relatively easy to describe in terms of likenesses, for it has the conversational immediacy of Eric Rohmer, Louis Malle, or Jim Jarmusch at their most relaxed. But it is less easy to describe when considering the way Hong leans less on overtones of the literary actor’s exercises such etudes of chat often possess, instead creating subtle, adventurous works of filmic legerdemain. Hong’s formal structures and deceptively rigorous technique motivate an apparently idle, offhand mise-en-scène, and the results stand out with individual vibrancy. Hong made The Day He Arrives with a miniscule crew working in digital black and white, evoking the old shooting methods of the early French New Wave whilst also suggesting the heights to which intelligent filmmakers with good actors and basic tools at their disposal can aspire.
Many of Hong’s films feature an artist-protagonist beset by the absurdities and petty distractions of everyday life that seem, all too often, to accumulate into the very texture of that life. Such an approach and subject matter risk descent into solipsistic autobiography, and yet Hong’s material has a fundamental and instinctual sense of experience and perspective, with hints of self-analysis that do not spurn universal applications. Hong’s work also reflects an implicit irony similar to some far more showy variations on similar ideas, like Fellini’s 8½ (1963) or Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) (Hong’s film could aptly be called “One Week In Another Town”) in that it takes as its theme the loss of artistic passion and inspiration, whilst revealing how fluidic and confident his artistry is in rejecting familiar motives and objects in creative endeavour. The Day He Arrives is not so much told as accumulated like pebbles washed up by the tide, portraying the most seemingly simple and undramatic of circumstances and subjecting them to a limpid, yet ever so slightly disorienting methodology. It’s also a classical “winter’s tale” in folk-poetic and Shakespearean parlance, a comedy of manners set in a frigid season, with characters who are feeling the pinch more deeply than they once did, where a jollity found in contemplating human foibles is tempered by the uncovering of emotions that are gently melancholic, in harmony with the bleakness of chilly days, withered trees, and aching souls.
Sungjoon Yoo (Jun-Sang Yu) is a former film director who has given up his trade and moved to the sticks, where he teaches at a regional university. He returns to Seoul for a few days on a kind of holiday and tries to think up ways to fill the sojourn. Sungjoon’s ambling air of disquiet become increasingly fraught, as his wanderings see him move only in circles as his gossamer tale unspools with a perverse symmetry. Indeed, tale is the wrong word, as nothing really happens to Sungjoon: he moves without travelling, and exists without experiencing. What does occur seems to be only variations or echoes of past events, inferior retreads, and Sungjoon seems to reject or feel impotent to act on the chances for new beginnings that come in the fragmentary whirl of events and people his odyssey present to him.
He sets out to catch up with his best friend Youngho (Sang Jung Kim), but when Youngho isn’t available, Sungjoon strolls around the city’s inner suburban tracts. In the first motif of the film’s thematic pattern, Sungjoon repeatedly encounters a gauchely eager young actress and teacher, who is increasingly less gauche with each new meeting. Then, Sungjoon enters a small, seamy tavern to smoke and write, where he’s invited to join a trio of young men for lunch. These lads prove to be film students, and one of them has seen the director’s four films, which, Sungjoon jests, makes him one of a select few. The mentor and the neophytes get drunk together and head out on the town, with Sungjoon promising to take them to an interesting place. But when he sees the trio unconsciously fall under the spell of the successful artist’s cult of personality by imitating his mannerisms, Sungjoon loses his temper and bawls them out before running off. He finds his way to the apartment of a former girlfriend, Kyungjin (Bo-kyung Kim), whom he hasn’t seen in two years. She greets him with apt frostiness and then eruptive pathos, but Sungjoon folds up in a bawling mess, begging her forgiveness, and finally climbing into bed with her.
Sungjoon’s displays of inchoate, reactive feeling and desperate need in these scenes signal what lies under his awkwardly smiling, nervous humour. Hong’s conceit is to offer the scene with Kyungjin early in the film as the start of a pattern, rather than a more traditional fashion towards the end, as a climactic explanation for his haunted air, as with a film like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). The next morning, Sungjoon takes his leave of Kyungjin, where he encourages her to forget him. She agrees it’s best, and asks for his phone number, only so that she can text him on certain occasions; she will break this promise constantly, her messages stabbing out of the void at random junctures, like the needling presence of some spirit of forlorn feeling.
Kyungjin’s apartment is a seamy, barely furnished hovel with a metal door, and she seems to have become, whatever the roots of their relationship and his affair with her, one of those people who exist like barnacles affixed to the great ship of a city, clinging on without actual purpose. Sungjoon seems to bear the hidden mark of some real damage: it’s suggested that he’s recovered from a bad illness, as he mentions his loss of strength and earlier health worries, and Kyungin seems to have also had such problems. But Sungjoon’s ailments, if they really are ailments, seem more mental, perhaps even environmental, as he expresses his dislike for the city Seoul has become.
On the second day, Sungjoon reencounters the actress before meeting up at last with Youngho. His former colleague is a good-natured, but more tentative, guarded, and shy man. Youngho invites Sungjoon to stay with him, and later the pair go to drink at a hole-in-the-wall bar called the “Novel” run by Yejeon (Kim again), who’s oddly absent when they first arrive. The two men get their own drinks and settle down to wait for Yejeon to come. Later, their duo is expanded by Youngho’s fellow teacher and secret crush, Boram (Seon-mi Song), who becomes rather taken with Sungjoon, whose display of a modestly charming intelligence in his better moments is unwittingly seductive. Like many directors before him who engaged in a touch of self-analysis, Hong portrays the status of the film director as pseudo-artist with a wry frustration, noting that sometimes solitude and silence are a prerogative that any other art form can allow the artist, but one the film director can only obtain with major, perhaps career-killing, concessions: cinema is also always a business, with many pretenders waiting to step in. Sungjoon becomes suggestively more awkward and threadbare in his responses to situations as, in the film’s course, he’s recognised less easily or enthusiastically, or by people he doesn’t recognise himself.
But Hong’s focus is not on the vicissitudes of his profession, but on his avatar-hero as a case study in modern life lived in a state of flux—emotionally, intellectually, creatively, and sexually. The long passages of uncertainty and noncommittal and vague distraction that are fundamental in life—usually the first things cut from any dramatic work—are here the whole show. Key to the film’s oddball progression is the hint that, rather than seeing directly sequential days in the life of Yoo Sungjoon, we are seeing days from repeating versions of the same experience: Sungjoon arriving for a few days’ visit in Seoul, meeting up with the same people, going to places and meeting people who are hazy in his recollections, doing the things he did before, and obeying the same impulses he surrendered to before—or is it just because they keep getting so pie-eyed that Sungjoon is always unsure about what happened and where previously? Thus, with each visit to Yejeon’s bar, gestures and actions repeat. Sungjoon mentions in voiceover the name of the bar as if discovering it for the first time. The group of friends, varying in numbers from two to four, perform the same ritual of getting their own drinks when they find Yejeon hasn’t come back from one of her mysterious absences. A shot of Yejeon walking back to the bar along the narrow alley outside, like some obscure figure of fateful import, is interpolated. Sungjoon rises in most sequences to tinkle away at the bar’s piano at one point. He ducks out the back of the bar to smoke a cigarette, where he converses with either Boram or Yejeon, and receives a melancholy text message from Kyungjin.
Hong’s conceptions reflect wry truths: when faced with the cornucopia of cities, we zero in on the familiar. In looking for new mates post break-up, many fall for facsimiles of their previous loves, the new version encapsulating all that was superficially attractive about the last lover but free of the specific history, and the alarming similarity of Yejeon and Kyungjin is rooted in this jokey truism. At the same time, a systematic exploration of doubling, repetition, reexperiencing, is in play here. The lapping, self-replicating episodes at the Novel could well be odes to their own nature as exercises in semi-improvisatory acting and directing, taking the same basic form and yet revising, adding, or detracting elements, to map how differently they play out. Hong elucidates his ideas on literal and figurative levels, and Sungjoon keeps stepping into situations where there is a charge of ill-remembered meaning, an uncertain solicitude offered for vaguely familiar faces, gestures, and places. The frustrations and comforts of familiarity are depicted with exacting accuracy.
Throughout most of the film, the charge of uncertainty is kept deliberately vague, even negligible, but it becomes more explicable as Sungjoon’s attraction to Yejeon gives way to passion with the pair snogging furiously in a back alley one night when he accompanies her on one of her expeditions to get food for the guests. This same act repeats the next day/subsequent occasion, and a blend of politeness and self-defensive denial almost conspires to erase an important moment for the couple. When Sungjoon tries to apologise, Yejeon denies anything occurred. Hong twists this scene into a comedic pay-off, for Sungjoon promptly embraces her again, and the event that never happened takes up where it left off.
The idea that an innate tendency for pattern recognition drives human cognisance of the world, even in the midst of a seeming multitude of choices and alternatives, is what we tend to ascribe as fate or luck, and perhaps this becomes as much of a cage as a tool. This underlying idea is introduced in a diegetic way, when Sungjoon states this theory in contemplating the nature of the recurring encounters that have defined his sojourn in the city and Boram’s account of a similar series of encounters of people involved in the Seoul film scene. Hong is indeed pursuing just this line of reasoning, but he’s also fascinated by the limitations of that recognition and our grasp on such patterns in that cornucopia: the fallibility of the human mind, the ambiguity of memory, the uncertainty over whether things have really happened before, if certain faces really have been seen before, or if they’re simply mental onomatopoeia. Of course, The Day He Arrives is essentially a character-driven, conversational comedy, if tinged with headiness and discontent, and the theoretical element is kept mostly to a low hum of amusing irony. But the abstract and the incidental constantly dovetail. In different scenes, Han and Sungjoon explain their theory of the perfect chat-up line for women, which is to describe their exterior selves and then suggest their internal lives are opposite. That line, in Hong’s drollest comic touch, works on both Boram and Yejeon, even though they’ve both been alerted to the game in play, as it seems to capture instantly their fastidious maintenance of externalities, armour plate against the chill of romantic failure and abuse, and workaday dissociation, whilst their interior lives long for more.
When the drunken Sungjoon gets mad at the young film students, who, in a moment redolent of silent film comedy, fall into line behind him, lighting cigarettes and mimicking his pose, without any deliberate intent, it’s a beautifully funny encapsulation of a peculiar terror of imitation and artistic personality, the sense of one’s innermost thoughts, creations, and ideas being public property. This theme is conflated with a certain wry satire on the Korean intelligentsia (but it could also be that of almost any modern nation): these filmmakers and teachers sure suck down a lot of booze in cliques as a panacea against their general frustrations and fatigue for a petty world. There’s also a more specific reflection on a traditionally Asian variety of hierarchical respect: Sungjoon is constantly referred to by others as “Director Yoo,” as one might say “Doctor” or “Professor” as titles of repute, as if director is now his fundamental identity, one that he can never truly leave behind, even if he wants to. Sungjoon seems to be running from this external identification for much of the film, as if it terrorises him. Later, Sungjoon runs into the actress again, and he advises her to marvel in the chains of chance that keep bringing them together, only to then turn and hurry off as fast as he can when he realises that the students she’s shepherding around are the trio he harangued.
He contends with an actor friend, Han Jungwon, who grills him first about his habit of only calling him by his first name, and then about how much money he earns as a regional film teacher (not much), and it finally emerges that Han nurses a grudge against him for not casting him in his second movie after promising another role, an act that smacks of some long-ago concession to commercialism or star-fucking that’s now so hazy in Sungjoon’s mind he can barely remember it. Han nonetheless provides a fourth member for the drinking party at the Novel that evolves into a lengthy, boozy good time. This party concludes in the film’s most striking scene, a long, unblinking shot of the four guests and Yejeon standing on the side of the road, waving down taxis in the snow that is gathering slushy at their feet, their collective good cheer dissipating in the illness of drunkenness, tiredness, and the cold, each member heading off to their separate solitudes.
As we learn, Sungjoon essentially goes through similar rituals with every woman he meets and sleeps with. Not that he’s an incorrigible rake; rather, Hong seems to suggest, this is the texture of modern life and modern erotic existence for many people: attraction, flirtation, coitus, and then a fumbling indecision when the postscript seems insufficient, a fearfulness before intense feelings that dictates constant tactical withdrawal.
Sungjoon’s retreat from the hurly-burly of his former urban, creative life is a retreat from all but the most fleeting of serious human contact. His flirtation with Yejeon finally resolves in a beguilingly sexy bedroom scene where the couple seem to loll together in bliss, but even there they’re engaged in constructing other people out of the person they’re with (“You’re a real man,” Yejeon coos. “No I’m not,” Sungjoon laughs.), according to a need that disperses by morning. Character observation is, in spite of the trickier, headier elements, the essence and pleasure of The Day He Arrives, as the people are fiendishly well-described types. Song’s Boram is a particular stand-out, a brilliantly described and articulated type who can be found in many a modern culture, with her hunger for connection and romance that’s subtly frantic in clasping at straws for a fate that doesn’t involve hunkering down with a vintage film and her dog—and even that’s gone missing, since it escaped when she was walking it. Youngho is besotted with her, and yet won’t make his feelings apparent for fear of losing a grip on his friendship with her, a reticence that involves watching her flurry in moments of boozy angst and flirt shamelessly with the unresponsive Sungjoon.
Hong’s work here evidently fits into a definite strand of interest with other modern, serious-minded Asian filmmakers, including Wong Kar-Wai, who’s been making films in a similar key of forlorn romanticism coupled with overt probing of the nature of narrative for years now, if essayed in a very different cinematic spirit. Hong’s coolly evoked urban landscapes and motifs of alienated communication through technological mediums has a certain likeness to Jia Zhangke. Yet Hong’s style is definitely singular, keen to the rhythms of intimacy and isolation but in a fashion that never feels arch, but is rather crisp and purposeful even when seemingly most casual. Kim’s photography helps Hong sustain an effervescent mixture of artless naturalism and subtle, painterly zest, so often framing two or three conversers in a shot and making a quick zoom in like parentheses closing in on a stray sentence fragment, and lending abstract beauty and piquancy to seamy and bland corners of Seoul. His camera work offers stray moments of poetic fancy, from the numinous light glowing within the plastic roofing of a roadside fruit stall to the graffiti-riddled walls of the seamy bar Sungjoon encounters the students in, and the noirish shadows and snow around Sungjoon and whichever woman he’s talking to on the back steps of the Novel. The nights are places of inky depths, prettily illumined faces, ranks of glistening black empty beer bottles and polished glasses, and fairytale snowflakes, whilst the days are flatly lit, baldly unflattering traps.
In the final phase of Sungjoon’s odyssey, he takes his leave of Yejeon, another of his edgy, friendly yet uncertain farewells, where he makes Yejeon take three pledges, including to keep a diary as a way of organising time and her internal self, an organising principle Sungjoon seems to have lost himself, and again asks her to forget him: she agrees, saying, “At least this way I’ll have a happy memory,” which is both a pretty idea and yet one that the film has made seem like the most uncertain idea in the world. Sungjoon’s subsequent wanderings confirm his increasing irrelevance to the filmmaking world, as he encounters other, patronising filmmakers and a former glad-handing producer, a space cadet student he doesn’t remember, and finally, another woman who resembles Yejeon and Kyungjin, who carries a camera she sports to make a visual diary with (is she another former lover, or perhaps Yejeon, or Kyungjin, later down the line?) and convinces Sungjoon to let her shoot him. The former director tries to smile with increasing agitation that his world has finally been turned inside out, as he becomes the photographed subject rather than the image-maker, pinioned like a butterfly in the midst of ghostly doppelgangers, abandoned labours, and faded dreams.