By Cal Meacham
A dream in black and white, a stark look at life through a non-forgiving lens. Korean director Hon Sang-soo delivers another human piece that shows the harsh realities of life without using a hammer.
The story surrounds a middle age film director, Seong-jun and his return to Seoul to visit an old friend. After making four films he decides that he doesn’t want to direct anymore, without an overt reason why. His return to Seoul seems a bit impulsive and his moves while not frantic, feel lost and desperate as he has shown up in the city without contacting anyone before his arrival.
Unable to get a hold of his friend Young-ho, Seong-jun walks the streets like a broken compass and eventually runs into an actress that he used to know. Their conversation is brief but you can tell that she is enamored while he is distant as if he barely remembers her as anything but a face. This is the first of many blurred moments to come as we see Seong-jun’s view of things begin to unravel.
After his encounter, Seong-jun heads into a bar for some dinner and drinks where he meets some young film students. Once again the young students seem starry-eyed at the idea of hanging with a director like Seong-jun and the group slams back several drinks. When they leave the pub Seong-jun tells the students that he wants to take him to a special place so they hop in a cab and embark to an unknown place. They arrive at their unnamed destination and it isn’t long before Seong-jun has a meltdown, yelling at the students to stop copying him. His drunken yelling catches them off guard and he stumbles down the street to his ex-girlfriends house, leaving the students bewildered. At his ex’s place he breaks down crying and confessing his love to her. A selfish act of a drunk man who can’t make heads or tails of his true emotions, he warms up to her in a seemingly manipulative act. The next morning (or even possibly later in the day) they discuss not talking anymore and how he doesn’t want to be contacted by her, he has played the part of a bulldozer again and he sets off onto the streets of Seoul. Back on the wander, he runs into the same unfamiliar/familiar actress again. The meeting is similar to the first and she seems quite happy that they keep running into each other but this is where the lines start to blur.
The deja vu moments compound from here on and you never get a firm footing as your sense of time is warped. The narrative is blurred but you are left threads of story to connect in your own way. Hong Sang-soo captures each moment as an observation to be studied and analyzed, never muddying up the flow with camera tricks or dizzying angles. Blending the techniques of an indie film maker with the eye of film veteran, the low-budget approach helps your involvement. You can compare the repetitions easily to fully understand the changes that were made and not get distracted with loud scenery. The black and white presentation fits itself perfectly to the mood and theme and helps you focus on the characters and dialog instead of the background imagery.
Hong Sang-soo’s film is a pure repetitious introspection that casts shadows of doubt on time, place and the mental state of the title character. We are destined to repeat the same mistakes even with mixed up variables, thus exposing the inner flaws. It is challenging without pretensions and begs for repeat viewings and discussion. A strong outing from Hong Sang-soo and further reinforcement that South Korea is a hotbed of great directors with unique vision. It’s hard to escape the groundhog day comparison but The Day He Arrives is much more opaque in delivery and without a clear solution.
Score – 9.0/10