In recent years, South Korea has become well-known for its cinema. Most people associate the country with gritty thrillers (I Saw the Devil, Oldboy, Mother), and rightly so, because none have surpassed them in that genre in recent years. Films filled with complex revenge plots or gangs of assassins have become a major export of the country, and streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu have helped many such to reach a vastly wider audience than they would have ten years ago.
Director Hong Sang-soo is not associated with thrillers, gritty or otherwise. His work falls more in the line of light drama, or comedy-drama. To my mind, he shares a lot with American filmmakers such as Joe Swanberg or the Duplass brothers. His films are driven by dialogue, and he is uniquely obsessed with exploring human interactions and relationships. Sound familiar? That’s right indie film fans, Hong Sang-soo is a creator of South Korean mumblecore.
In The Day He Arrives, Hong follows the story of a somewhat famous film director who is on hiatus, visiting Seoul to reconnect with friends that he knew when he lived there. He meets some film students and gets wasted with them, and eventually runs crying to his ex-girlfriend’s house for a drunken emotional breakdown. Then, Hong starts the story over at the beginning, but takes it a different route, this time taking the director to visit an old friend. And then the story starts at the beginning again. Hong tells four or five different stories, all set in the same time and place, and featuring loosely the same group of characters. Basically, these characters are life-sized dolls, and director Hong spends the film putting them in various scenarios and watching how they react against one another.
The format of the story (or stories) is kept purposely enigmatic, as there is one girl that the main character meets at the beginning of each new story, and they both seem to remember their previous meetings. Hong doesn’t want you to get too caught up in a single “plot,” but he wants you to get to know the characters, and enjoy the stories they create. One story may slant more toward comedy, another may descend into melodrama. Hong is very precise in not letting you invest yourself in one story over another, rather presenting one beautiful collage of short films, all featuring the same basic premise. As I watched these funny, sad, painful and romantic stories unfold, only to restart again with an “And now for something slightly different!,” I couldn’t help but think back on Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which came out a year after this. The main character is an actor who goes out into the real world to play his parts, and somebody asks him why he does what he does. His answer is simple: “The beauty of the act.”
Shot in artfully modern black and white, and costarring the beautiful Song Seon-mi and Kim Bo-kyung, The Day He Arrives is very intent on presenting us with something genuinely worth watching, and worth thinking about. There’s plenty of discussion in the film about life and meaning, although the fact that most of these conversations are erased at the start of each new story says something else interesting about Hong’s worldview.
The Day He Arrives is, at its heart, a very simple film, and very easy to watch and enjoy. If you’re a fan of Swanberg, or the Duplass brothers, or indie dramas in general, Hong Sang-soo is definitely someone for you to check out, and this is a great place to start.
Watch the trailer: