The Day He Arrives: Cannes 2011 Review

A clever and dream-like game with narrative time embedded in trivial but amusing social and sexual encounters.

After Hong Sangsoo's twelfth film, one wonders if there is more for the audience than the self-satisfaction of getting an in-joke or a charade.

Cannes – Hong Sangsoo’s oeuvre is becoming as self-reflexive and cyclical as the serpent that swallows its own tail. When not making films about filmmakers making films (such as Oki’s Movie), he is making films about filmmakers who cannot make films (Women on the Beach, Like You Know It All). The Day He Arrives belongs to the latter category. Thankfully, the film does not dwell on creative blocks or hurt male pride, and only serves as an amusing itinerary of dining, drinking and sexual dalliance that beguilingly plays with narrative time.

Out of work Korean filmmakers are currently head-hunted by premier festivals (check out Kim Ki-duk’s Arirang, also in Un certain regard) so Hong should be gainfully employed touring festival circuits. Distribution rests within the same European arthouse channels as his previous works, plus a sale to Japan.

Yoo Seongjun (Yu Junsang) is a has-been director teaching in provincial Daegu. He arrives in Seoul and his own voice-over announces his plan to “stay for a few days.” Less than 10 minutes into the film, he is has already initiated a drinking brawl. 20 minutes on, he has wormed his way into ex-lover Kyungjin’s bed by weeping and wailing pathetically about how much he misses and loves her.

He meets up with old friend Young-ho (Kim Sangjoong). A round of dinners and drinks lead to his introduction to Boram (Song Sunmi), a professor of film, and reunion with an actor who appeared in his film. At the bar “Novel” which Young-ho frequents, Boram takes to Yoo, especially after he plays a romantic tune (albeit awfully) on the piano. Yoo, however, has eyes for Yejeon, the bar’s pretty owner. Over a few more visits, they kiss and make out outside the bar.

In many of Hong’s films, repetition is a formalist trope that signifies (among other things) the emotional blockage and existential rut of his disgruntled male characters. In The Day He Arrives, repetition is so seamlessly woven into the narrative that one may or may not notice scenes and dialogues are being replayed like the same out-of-tune piano score Yoo plays night after night in the bar. Yoo’s aimless walks around the streets are punctuated by random run-ins with the same actress acquaintance, and the film students he drank with.

That Kyungjin and Yejeon are both played by Kim Bokyung, and the women are such easy pushovers (they respond equally docilely to his irresponsible parting rhetoric and even send him loving SMS with exact same wording) gesture at the possibility that this is just a male fantasy that’s going on inside oafish and physically non-descript Yoo’s head. The bar’s name gestures at the fictional possibility of everything that’s happening.

Shot in low-contrast, matt monochrome that makes Seoul in winter look indistinct and uninviting, Hong’s knack for covertly studied framing draws out tantalizing visual and dramatic possibilities from doorsteps, courtyard entrances and stairways.

It is true that Hong gives a new inflexion to the art of filmmaking in each film, even if his template of characters (male artist, his friend and the women he sleeps with) seem to go through the same groundhog day of sex, booze, self-examination and self-deceit. However, after 12 films, one wonders if there is more for the audience than the self-satisfaction of getting an in-joke or a charade.

Un certain regard

Sales: Finecut
Production companies: Jeonwonsa Film Co.
Cast: Yu Junsang, Kim Sangjoong, Song Sunmi, Kim Bokyung .
Yu – Yoo Seongjun Kim SJ – Youngho Song – Boram Kim – Kyungjin & Yejeon.
Director-screenwriter: Hong Sangsoo.
Producer: Kim Kyounghee.
Director of photography: Kim Hyungkoo.
Production designer: Yi Yuiheang.
Music: Jeong Yongjin.
Costume designer: .
Editor: Hahm Sungwon.
No rating