THE DAY HE ARRIVES (Book chon bang hyang) B
South Korea (79 mi) 2011 d: Hong Sang-soo
No one makes films like this anymore except Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who has become something of a master of the minimalist feature, breaking everything down into small, compartmentalized pieces, where like thoughts turned into memories, they replay in his head over and over again, a bit different each time in an existential examination of identity. Certainly since WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN (2004), Hong has been making variations of the same film, where a professor or esteemed professional meets with a group of students or admirers, spending the duration of the film smoking and eating noodles, also drinking profusely and behaving badly or awkwardly, often leading to regrettable sexual encounters that he’d just as soon forget, where drinking and his boorish behavior are the centerpiece of the film, showing men behaving badly in a culture that is otherwise dominated by male power. Beginning in Hong’s next film TALE OF CINEMA (2005), narrative strands began to intersect in his films, where the same moment is reshot from another character’s perspective, offering impressionistic glimpses that show life continually moving and evolving, never remaining static, where thoughts and memories have a life of their own. WOMAN ON THE BEACH (2006) is one of Hong’s most mature works, where he begins to feel comfortable with his developing style, writing his own films except his first feature, using a complex set of characters in an intricate exploration of obsessions and personal relationships through drunken scenes revolving around food and drink in restaurants where characters speak ill of one another, followed by solitary, reflective moments smoking, and also intimate scenes in hotel rooms that nearly always go wrong, usually with tears and intense self-loathing, motifs that occur throughout his filmography. THE DAY HE ARRIVES is one of his sparer efforts where the entire story is composed of bits and pieces of conversation, most all of it in the exact same places, a reliable Korean Noodle House and a completely intimate and relaxed neighborhood bar interestingly enough called Novel that is so comfortable, it’s like a figment of one’s imagination, as often the patrons are the only ones there, helping themselves to whatever they want, where payment apparently is on the honor system.
Men almost always dominate a Hong film, as often they’re the only ones with an actual career, but they are nearly always surrounded by younger and more attractive women, where it’s the women who make the films interesting, and this film is no exception. Sang-joon (Yu Jun-sang) is a film professor in an outlying university, but earlier in his career he was a filmmaker, making four films in Seoul before moving away from the city. Back in Seoul for a few days, he’s there to meet an old friend, but initially gets sidetracked and is instead invited to join a group of male film students in drinking, spending the day and night getting plastered, ultimately turning on the students and telling them to get lost. Dropping in unannounced, dead drunk at the door of an ex- girlfriend, Kyungjin (Kim Bo-kyung), someone he hasn’t seen in two years seems like the right thing to do, under the circumstances, and she calls him on it right away, embarrassed by his all-too-belated feeble gesture where he pitifully cries in her lap, claiming she’s the only one for him, confessing his undying love. Why this works, who knows? But he spends the night, seen leaving in the morning where he vows never to contact her again and urges her to do the same. The guy is a lout, but she obviously has long-standing feelings for him, where she’s sad to see him go. By this time, he’s heard from his friend, Young-ho (Kim Sang-jung), an older film critic who has brought along an attractive female colleague, Boram (Song Seon-mi), who’s seen his films and they meet in the noodle house before retreating to a back-alley neighborhood bar where they are the only customers. When the owner arrives, she’s the spitting image of Kyungjin, named Yejeon, played by the same actress. Over the course of three nights, they repeat their exact same routine, meeting at the noodle house before retreating to the bar, where each time they are the lone customers, where the proprietess arrives much later, but joins into their rambling conversation, where the camera simply observes, interestingly shot in Black and White.
Each night the barroom conversation is so similar, talking about the exact same thing, it’s as if it was queued up from the night before only to begin again where it left off, where it plays out like different takes on the same event rather than consecutive nights in the same place. What it really comes down to are the thoughts playing out in Sang-joon’s head, each given a slightly different perspective, where he’s also receiving text messages from Kyungjin, confessing her longing for him, playing piano each night as well while engaging with his friends and taking a similar interest in Yejeon. There’s a beautiful scene in the snow that recalls Visconti’s heavily romanticized but fleeting affair in White Nights (La Niotti Bianche) (1957), where Sang-joon takes a break and has a smoke out the back door overlooking the alley, watching the snow fall in silence, eventually joined by Yejeon who eagerly wants to buy some dumplings, where they have a chance to kiss in the snow, leading to an exact replica of the evening with Kyungjin, where Sang-joon pledges his everlasting love, that he’ll never leave her, making love through the night, leaving in the morning promising to never see her again. The men in Hong Sang-soon films are like broken records, where fidelity never enters the picture. Boram, on the other hand, is the alluring centerpiece between the two male friends, where both obviously enjoy her attention, as she’s likely smarter and perhaps more talented than either one of them, but held back as a woman, as men in Korea are slotted into career positions, not women. While Young-ho exhibits a kind of drunken outburst of support for Boram that’s really rather pathetic, neither man engages in any sense of sexist outrage on her behalf, or even acknowledge there’s an issue of second class status, but they’re certainly aware of cultural practices that exist in Korea where men are the favored group over women, receiving all the advantages. So it’s a bit ironic that Sang-joon’s *former* film career receives constant attention, even though he’s no longer making films, claiming he hasn’t the “energy” anymore, but is instead teaching at some outlying university where he’s too ashamed to even acknowledge his lowly salary. After three nights of this, there’s not a whit of difference between what happens in any of them, as there’s nothing to indicate Sang-joon has learned from his mistakes or would do anything differently the next time. The cycle of repetition is a stinging comment on the unchanging, predetermined status quo that exists in perpetuity in Korea, where life goes on exactly as it did before.