Tuesday, February 05, 2013

'The Day He Arrives' Review

Hong Sang-soo's films can seem repetitious because of their overlapping themes and narrative tricks. Lots of scenes of drinking, immature male characters who constantly have romantic troubles, fractured or circular timelines: If you're not feeling charitable, you might say that if you've seen one of Hong's films, you've seen them all.

But like Woody Allen, the American filmmaker to whom he's most compared, Hong doesn't repeat himself because he doesn't have any fresh ideas. Rather, it's that he's constantly reworking and rethinking his approach, finding new angles by which to attack the subjects that fascinate him: the fragility of friendship; the fine line between fiction and reality; the annoying unpredictability of the human heart.

Like Allen, he's incredibly prolific, but unlike Allen, it isn't always easy to see his work. In the last 10 years, Hong has produced nine features. I've managed to see six of them: one at a film festival; three on DVD; one through a publicist's screener; and one, I swear to God, while in Seattle for a few days during my honeymoon. (That one was a complete fluke.) LACMA had a retrospective of his films in 2009, but I was told they were poorly attended. Deceptively slight and endlessly watchable, this South Korean filmmaker's comedy-dramas aren't seen nearly as widely as they should be.

I bring this up because I've just today caught up with The Day He Arrives, his 2011 film that finally played in New York in April of last year. (To my knowledge, it never got a theatrical release here in Los Angeles.) Because of the character-driven, dialogue-heavy nature of his films, watching The Day He Arrives on DVD didn't make me feel that I had been greatly deprived by missing it in the theater. The bottom line is that however you see it, you should see it. (It's available on Netflix as we speak.)

The Day He Arrives isn't that different from Hong's earlier works in its outline. Seongjun (Yoo Jun-sang) is a young filmmaker taking a break to do some teaching in a small town. But as the movie opens, he's returned to Seoul to see an old friend and, we soon gather, to perhaps get a sense of what he's been missing by moving out of the big city. He eventually gets reacquainted with his buddy (Kim Sang-joong), but he also is drawn into the orbit of a few different beautiful women, including his buddy's platonic friend Boram (Song Sun-mi).

Hong's other 2012 U.S. release, In Another Country, was structured as three very different short stories revolving around the same characters in the same location and time frame. The Day He Arrives, at first, seems more conventional, but soon it begins to reveal its own subtle narrative quirks. I almost don't want to discuss them so that they can be surprises, but I will say that odd coincidences and strange repetitions of actions begin to occur. Sometimes the characters notice them; sometimes they don't. The advantage to seeing the movie on DVD is that once you're finished with the film, you can immediately hop over to the extras, where Kevin B. Lee has a typically sharp, thoughtful video essay about the possible meanings behind Hong's déjà vu-like structure. Lee offers a few intriguing theories that are excellent food for thought, even if he himself acknowledges that he may be reading too much into the film.

I can understand Lee's impulse. At just barely 78 minutes, The Day He Arrives is a slender little film, and yet its construction is so absorbing that you feel like it opens a door into the much bigger, richer world that we all occupy. Plus, it's simply gorgeous-looking. Whereas some of Hong's films are visually unremarkable -- his focus is on people, not showy framing -- The Day He Arrives was shot in beautiful black-and-white, giving his characters' romantic woes a grandeur that's earned but, also, even funnier because of their ordinariness. (Speaking of Allen, while watching The Day He Arrives I caught myself humming in my head some of the Gershwin tunes used in Manhattan. The two films do have fun with the ways in which we elevate our relationship problems to the level of grand drama.)

But it's not just this film's look -- it's the way Hong very patiently starts weaving in his repetitions, whether they be locations, conversations or even people. Because he never lays out precisely why these repetitions are happening, we're left to fill in the blanks ourselves. Lee suggests that perhaps some of what we're watching is invented -- the main character is a filmmaker, after all -- and that's a perfectly valid theory. (It's a technique Hong has utilized in other films.) Personally, though, I don't quite want to attach concrete explanations to an enigma like The Day He Arrives. Much like we never really learn why Seongjun decided he wanted to leave Seoul -- or why he's coming back now -- the movie as a whole holds on to its mysteries. There are plenty of clues, but sometimes it's better to let a film wash over you, allowing it to seep into your subconscious and start playing on your own attitudes, biases, worries and worldview.

For me, Seongjun's journey to Seoul puts him into a self-repeating purgatory -- his own Groundhog Day, I suppose -- that causes him to reevaluate past mistakes while being introduced to new mistakes he's about ready to make. That's not so different than the rest of us who return to an emotionally-charged location, the past and the present playing off each other in sometimes very alarming ways. But that's just my own take. You really should see this movie to make your own.