Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Day He Arrives

One’s experience of seeing The Day He Arrives may well differ with exposure to other Sang-soo Hong films, for like this one, I gather, they are all about film-makers, the faltering beginnings and ends of relationships, and the talking of life and love over drinks. I cannot guess if repeated return to similar territory is likely to be endearing or irritating, but there presumably is some sort of progression at work here, as Jun-Sang Yu plays a Hongian director Sungjoon, who’s got four features under his belt but has (temporarily?) given up film-making to teach in the provinces. All that happens on the day he arrives in Soeul is that he fails to hook up with his friend Youngho, falls into drinking with three amusing film students, scampers off crying “don’t copy me”, and ends up weeping in the apartment of an old flame, before they agree they should not see one another again.

What happens on subsequent days is no less peripatetic, but does involve repeated returns to a particular bar, with Youngho and his pretty friend Boram. Some commentators see in this a reworking of ideas and repeating of possibilities – the day he arrives replayed with permutations – but in truth they keep going back because Sungjoon has a crush on the owner (who has an amusing habit of never being there when they arrive and settle in, and is played by the same actress as Sungjoon's crush). The repetition is less like an examination of the dynamic from different angles, than the natural behavior of people who’ve found a comfortable spot, and whose lifestyles allow for plenty of sitting around chatting and drinking.

These conversations have a wonderfully natural air, and skirt their subjects in perfect barroom philosophy style. A disquisition on coincidence has Sungjoon suggest they should not look for reasons in chance happenings, but simply enjoy the rich tapestry with which life presents and surprises them, and his film follows this same order, producing events simply for us to enjoy, ponder at, but ultimately look for no deep meaning in. As he meets in quick succession, in a similar way to encounters related by Boram, various film-maker acquaintances on the street, he wonders at their friendliness or lack thereof, but refuses to draw conclusions or pass personal judgment on the workings of life.

All this is shot in a lovely soft black and white, with a stylistic quirk of gentle zooms when one character or another starts on a little spiel. The use of road signs at the start – Constitution Junction, a church – drops off, as though Hong thought better of the symbolic suggestiveness of the device, more comfortable with the freewheeling, meaning-avoiding rhythms of just hanging out. Such deliberate detachment, inconsequentiality and, frequently, self-deprecation, could come off as irritatingly self-absorbed – particularly as Sungjoon appears to be universally attractive to women – but Hong is humble in his presentation of a character who it seems is simply not sure what to make of life or how to proceed. He is in a state of stasis, lacking the strength, he feels, to make another film, and perhaps with a respectable oeuvre of four now behind him, no pressing need to do so. But he’s not sure. His final encounter, however, suggests a small step of growth as he allows a fan to photograph him, an action Hong had denied the film-maker protagonist of a previous film (so they say). Hong’s obsessions may be wearing thin to those more familiar with his work, but to a virgin, The Day He Arrives comes across as deceptively well-textured, consistently funny, and quite charming.

d/sc Sang-soo Hong p Kim Kyounghee ph Kim Hyungkoo ed Hahm Sungwon m Jeong Yongjin cast Yu Junsang, Kim Sangjoong, Song Sunmi, Kim Bokyung
(2011, S.Kor, 79m, b/w)


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