Korean art house auteur and international film festival favourite Hong Sang Soo returns with “The Day he Arrives”, his twelfth outing and another alcohol soaked rumination on the male ego and insecurities. The film sees the director teaming again with Yoo Jun Sang, one of the stars of his excellent “HaHaHa”, as his protagonist, with support from Kim Sang Joong (“City Hunter”), Song Seon Mi (“The Daughters-in-Law”) and Kim Bo Kyung (“Epitaph”) in a dual role. As usual with Hong, the film enjoyed a successful run at various events around the world, including playing Cannes in the Un certain Regard category.
Hong again has the plot revolving around a film maker, in this case Seong Jun (Yoo Jun Sang), who seems to have taken a break from directing and returned to being a professor. Taking a trip to Seoul for a few days to visit old friend Young Ho (Kim Sang Joong), he ends up wandering the streets, having random encounters and drinking a great deal. After getting drunk and turning up at the home of ex-lover Kyung Jing (Kim Bo Kyung), he meets another woman (also played by Kim Bo Kyung) when out with Young Ho, who runs a bar called Novel and resembles her closely. With Young Ho’s attractive friend Boram (Song Seon Mi) also expressing an interest in him, Seong Jun soon end up with a variety of romantic complications as he muddles his way along.
To anyone who has seen one of his films before, “The Day he Arrives” is instantly recognisable as a Hong Sang Soo work. Showing the director’s usual mix of meandering philosophising and heavy drinking, the film is ambiguous throughout, taking its simple setup and using it to present Seong Jun as a rather useless man seemingly trapped in a “Groundhog Day” style loop that he is powerless, or perhaps too lacking in motivation to break free from. Without explicitly stating that the film is charting repeated days (it’s quite possible that the narrative is subtly fractured and that the days are not in chronological order), the plot sees him encountering the same people in the same places, having the same conversations and dealing with the same issues. There’s a definite and deliberate sense of déjà vu throughout, and of offbeat coincidence, and although the viewer does gradually learn more about Seong Jun, there’s enough overlap to keep things vague, in particular with the two characters played by Kim Bo Kyung, whose looks and personalities are strikingly similar.
Whilst in other hands such musings may have become dull or self important, Hong is a master of whimsy, and the film is charming and engaging from start to finish, at least for audiences used to his brand of cinematic self examination and eccentricity. The fact that the narrative revolves mainly around drinking makes it light and fun, and the film is certainly not pretentious or heavy handed, showing his usual playful feel, and coming across as artistic and intellectual mainly in just in passing. With a running time of just 79 minutes, the film certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome, and despite his many flaws and the fact that he for no apparent reason appears to be irresistibly attractive to beautiful women, Seong Jun is a likeable fellow, incapable of resolving anything and trapped by his own inability to progress.
Possibly even more so than with Hong’s other efforts, the film is open to a variety of interpretations, and for different viewers may or may not mean something. For all its vagueness it does have a few insights and comments on relationships and insecurities, and remains recognisably human and even intimate. Naturalistically shot in often murky, though visually appealing, black and white, the film has a classical look that accentuates its cold location, creating an effective contrast between its snowy exteriors and the warm drinking dens in which its characters spend most of their time. Although at times a little pointed and symbolic, the conversations themselves are believable and frequently very funny in a wry fashion, and this again ensures that for all its enigmas and uncertainty, the film is both accessible and entertaining.
“The Day he Arrives” is yet another fine effort from Hong Sang Soo, and although it doesn’t exactly see the director stepping outside his comfort zone, it does offer a slightly different take on his favoured material. A must-see for fans, while it does require a little effort from the viewer, it’s a rich and rewarding piece of art house cinema that sees him furthering his reputation as one of Korea’s top and most enduring talents.
Sang-soo Hong (director) / Sang-soo Hong (screenplay)
CAST: Jun-Sang Yu … Sungjoon
Sang Jung Kim … Youngho