In a revealing interview from a director who doesn’t typically reveal much, Hong Sang-soo mentioned that he’s actually shot The Day He Arrives in color but transferred it to black-and-white because it works better when capturing Seoul in winter. This could have been a tremendous risk because lighting and costume design are deeply affected by such a choice; the expensive transfer could have been a disaster, especially for a filmmaker who practically redefines “low-budget” cinema in South Korea. As usual, though, Hong’s instincts prove right even when his articulations leave much to be desired. Hong’s Seoul nights shine with inky, almost oily blackness. The sheen gets reinforced by car headlights, the neon signs of shops, the Christmas lights laced around a balcony or a restaurant’s plate-glass windows. Gentle snowfall punctuates the night, blending in with the city lights. Hong’s nights and winters, as with Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), are made for high-contrast black-and-white. This might be the most purely beautiful movie he’s done. But what happens within this stark, surefooted beauty is imprecise and ambiguous. Yoo Seongjun (Jun-Sang Yu) is a once-promising filmmaker who’s now living and teaching (but not directing) in the country, and who has decided to visit his old stomping grounds (Seoul), and drop in unexpectedly on Youngho (Sang Jung Kim), a friend and fellow filmmaker. Basically, Seongjun’s reliving his glory days. He visits old haunts (mostly restaurants and bars… especially bars). He tries to sleep with an old flame (Bo-Kyung Kim), who he ditched for reasons unsaid—and maybe unknown by either him or her—and who’s decidedly ambivalent about seeing him again. He runs into a former student who’s now doing better than he is. He meets up with an actor who he wronged by keeping the poor guy on the hook—for a year!—for a role that Seongjun never intended to give him. A great running joke is that people keep recognizing him (“Hey, Director Yoo!”) on the streets, and he can’t decide whether he wants to be nonchalant about it or if he wants his ego stroked by flattery. Usually, he gets one kind of attention when he wants the other, hence the laughs. Every night, he ends up in the same bar (“Novel”), but with different variations of old friends and in radically different moods. Indeed, The Day He Arrives could either be read as three consecutive days in Seongjun’s life or a different take on the same day, like parallel universes of ennui. Hong doesn’t give away the conceit definitively, and I find that I like that. In some ways, this doesn’t matter. No matter how you slice it, Seongjun falls into the same ambivalent, fumbling patterns—too much booze, too much ambling around, too much insecurity and jealousy over his friends’ successes, too much playing around with women’s hearts (one of which looks just like his ex). I got the sense, though Hong never says it outright, that Seongjun went to the country to escape Seoul and its temptations, and to reconnect with his roots. The nasty joke is that he’s even more stalled now than he was before. Removing himself of commitments and attachments hasn’t freed him but instead stifled him. He spends most of the movie pausing and hesitating—except when faced with a drink, because who can resist getting shitfaced in a Hong movie?—and so each day (whether it’s one or three) is weirdly empty and unfulfilling. It’s not laziness but despair that keeps Seongjun so inactive, and The Day He Arrives—despite being very, very funny—compels because it shows how depression’s effect isn’t just sadness but stasis, too. When Seongjun sits down at a bar to play piano, as he does twice here, the music that comes out is lovely and melancholy. Judging by the people who stop him on the street, his films are acclaimed and moving. So he’s a real-deal artist. But he doesn’t believe it, and that lack of belief makes him a mess, trapped in his glory days and unable to see beyond them. At the movie’s end, he’s walking the same road he did to begin the movie. This time, he deliberately moves in a different direction. His face registers fear but also, perhaps, a new and necessary path.
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