The Day He Arrives directed by Hong Sang-soo, 2011
The films of Hong Sang-soo have been an obsession of mine since I saw Oki’s Movie and On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate at a retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive last year. Hong himself was there, cryptically avoiding interpretation of his own films during the audience Q&A. When asked why he cast a particular actor (apparently a huge pop star in Korea), Hong responded, “Because he was willing to accept a low salary.” This was about as forthcoming as he got. He prefers, it seems, to let his work speak for itself.
His new film, The Day He Arrives, doesn’t seem to disclose much to the viewer at first glance. It’s a puzzling, fascinating fugue of a movie, toying with time with an unnerving subtlety. Temporal oddities–what appear at first to be continuity errors–accumulate until the film’s narrative becomes a Chinese puzzle, complex yet rewarding in its demonstrations of the plasticity of narrative structure, the stuff of fictional reality, and, by extension, the stories we tell ourselves about our own realities.
Like many of his recent films, The Day He Arrives appears to be a straightforward, realistic, low-key comedy. A rural professor and semiretired filmmaker, the “he” of the title, is visiting Seoul, wandering around his old neighborhood, killing time before he meets a friend. The days pile up, but their sequence–and whether they’re even separate days–becomes increasingly unclear. Conversations and scenes are repeated with variations. Sometimes characters refer to previous events and receive blank stares in response. At one point, a character tells a group his strategy for picking up women and then proceeds to charm one of his listeners with that same strategy, all in the same shot. It seems like Hong is poking fun at his characters, but the film avoids farce by staying grounded in a recognizable world. Though strange things happen, the slipperiness of the narrative never dominates the film, and the characters themselves are fully formed, complex, and treated with warmth and sympathy. Somehow, the filmmaker has created a game that is not a game, a portrait of human behavior and frailty that is simultaneously an experiment with form. That the film sustains that ambiguity, on multiple levels, is a remarkable achievement. Now if only Hong would explain what it means.