Film Review: The Day He Arrives

The trailer is in color, for some reason, while the film itself is in black-and-white. I sorta disagree with the written character descriptions contained within it, but the trailer does a pretty good job of conveying what the film is all about. 

A lot of people have remarked on how Hong Sangsoo’s stories are all about the same thing. This is rarely leveled as a criticism, as he’s one of the world’s most respected filmmakers, it’s just sort of his defining characteristic. That said, I’m not  so sure that it’s something that exclusive to him. For instance, Steven Spielberg’s films mostly tell stories either of people learning to be good parents or of kids working out emotional issues caused by  bad parents — he just dresses it up with dinosaurs, robot kids, con-men, or H.G. Wells.

The filmmaker does the same thing, he just does it in such a transparent way, it’s almost like he’s deliberately set out to tell the same story, with the same characters, in as many ways as possible — without using velociraptors.

The story he tells repeatedly, by the way, generally covers a series of love triangle between a set of self-absorbed, 30-something filmmakers/intellectuals.

Because of this, each new film is like watching an adaptation of a story you already know. The filmmaking, not the story, changes in each version. In that way, part of the viewing experience becomes anticipating certain scenes so you can compare them to the original.

So what is there to be said of this version? The most noticeable thing from the moment “The Day He Arrives” starts, is that it’s in black and white, which for me, calls to mind Woody Allen (or the French New Wave). But the black and white serves another purpose, it has a nostalgic quality, it implies the past and not the present. As does the second most noticeable aspect of the film: the repetition of locations, situations and people.

The film’s protagonist Yoo (Yu Jun-Sang) is a filmmaker living in self-imposed exile in the countryside, who decides to come back to Seoul for a few days — apparently something he does every once in a while. For pretty much the entire time he’s in town, he engages in pretty sustained indulgent and self-destructive behavior: constant wandering, boozing, carousing, and courting of situations likely to create social conflict. We first see Yoo waiting for a friend and when he doesn’t show, Yoo decides to go drinking with a group of students he encounters randomly. After several drinks, Yoo inexplicable becomes enraged with them, and flees to an ex Kyung-jin’s (Kim Bok-yung) apartment. After engaging in some melodrama with her, (pledging undying love and groaning about heartbreak), Yoo departs again, asking Kyung-jin to never contact him again.

He then meets up with his friend (and a woman his friend is courting) and they go for drinks at a bar called Novel, the proprietor of which looks exactly like Kyung-jin (she’s played by Kim as well). Yu is immediately drawn to her, anxious to create a fresh carbon copy of his relationship with Kyung-jin with a woman who looks exactly like her.

The scenes that follow mirror each other in such a way that I initially thought the disc I was viewing had skipped. The same characters go drinking in the same bar with very similar results a few times in the film. The repetition in these scenes mirror the repetition in Sangsoo’s body of work. One must wonder then, what Yu’s claustrophobic trip to Seoul represents. He lives his life largely in the countryside, but returns to Seoul every now and then to engage in a very established pattern of behavior. It seems fairly certain to me, then that Yu’s trips to Seoul represent Sangsoo’s filmmaking. What’s unclear to me, though, is whether these trips are good or bad for Yu. Is the point that Yu cannot/doesn’t want to escape this pattern of behavior? Or is he cunningly rationing it, using it to recharge his batteries?

Either way, one thing the film makes clear is that his world is gradually getting smaller, even in a place as big as Seoul. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Yu runs into another potential partner, but quickly abandons whatever plans he had for her when he realizes she knows the film students he drank with the other day. It’s scenes like this and a pretty breezy 78-minute run time, that make “The Day He Arrives” Sangsoo’s most accessible film yet. There is just enough new here to recommend the film to both Sangsoo’s fans and newbies alike.

“The Day He Arrives” screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It will screen at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 North High St., Columbus, Ohio, Friday, June 29 and Saturday, June 30.

About Ben Hamamoto

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's been published in the Oakland Tribune and has written for New American Media's YO! Youth Outlook and the Nichi Bei Times. He is a research manager for the Health Horizons Program at the Institute for the Future. He also edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine and contributes to Nichi Bei Weekly.

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