Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives

Yoo Seong-jun is a failed indie director turned provincial film school teacher. He is strangely ambivalent about the apparent end of his filmmaking career, making him a rather odd sort of-kind of surrogate for Hong Sang-soo, one of Korea’s busiest directors in recent years. Though Hong’s prior American distribution has been spotty at best, he will make up for lost time this week, with two new releases hitting New York theaters. Following yesterday’s opening of Oki’s Movie at the Maysles Cinema, Hong’s subsequent film, The Day He Arrives (trailer here), opens this Friday at the Lincoln Plaza.

Yoo is a loser and he knows it, at least to some extent. Visiting Seoul, he tries to meet-up with his old friend, film critic Young-ho, but connections are always a dicey business in Hong’s films. Aimlessly wandering the streets, patterns start to emerge. He keeps crossing the path of an actress he knows causally and has an awkward series of run-ins with a group of film students. Inevitably, he turns up at his ex-girlfriend Kyung-jin’s apartment for a reunion that will be not be healthy for anyone.

The next day, he rendezvouses with Young-ho, who brings along his ambiguously platonic friend Boram, who clearly has eyes for Yoo. However, Yoo is only interested in Yejeon, the beautiful proprietor of the bar Young-ho frequents (called “Novel”), who is the spitting image of Kyung-jin. Once again, the patterns of the night before will repeat, but under different circumstances.

Hong’s Day is an intentionally extreme example of the way people repeat certain mistakes throughout their lives and relationships. In this respect, it is a fitting companion film to Oki’s Movie, even though it is strictly linear and nowhere near as mischievous in its approach to narrative. The empty bottles of booze also pile up quickly in both films.

Hong is often dubbed something like the Woody Allen of Korea. In way, the comparison is particularly apt in Day, in which Yoo, a sullen failure, attracts the attention of at least four attractive women (played by three actresses).  Day is a darker film than his previous outing, whose characters all seem to lack a sense of self-awareness, but it is often quite witty, with the occasional flash of genuine insight.

Despite the problematic nature of both her on-screen relationships, the luminous Kim Bok-yung gives exquisitely sensitive performances as Yejeon and Kyung-jin. Yu Jun-sang’s Yoo is something of a cipher (by design), but he portrays his erratic self-absorbed self-defeating behavior solidly enough. In support, Kim Sang-joong and Song Sunmi exhibit a real flair for Hong’s wicked dialogue and their characters’ ever escalating inebriation, as Young-ho and Boram, respectively.

Shot by cinematographer Kim Hyung-koo in a deliberately drab black-and-white that makes Seoul look like the DPRK in winter, Day definitely has a touch of the absurd. Yet, despite the doppelgangers and obsessive repetitions, it is still a film about relationships, which makes it relatively accessible to general audiences. Recommended for fans of Hong and the films Woody Allen made during bouts of depression, The Day He Arrives opens this Friday (4/20) at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.