You don’t have to understand the intricacies of Korean manners to enjoy Hong Sang-soo’s subtly mortifying comedies. Nor do you have to be on familiar terms with the effects of alcohol—but it certainly helps.
The Day He Arrives, the prolific Hong’s 12th film, begins with Sungjoon (Yu Jun-sang), a former film director now retired to a professorship at a provincial school, returning for a visit to Seoul, his former home. Failing to connect with a friend, Sungjoon instead gets embarrassingly blotto with a group of students and drops in unannounced on an ex-girlfriend, Kyungjin (Kim Bo-kyung). He tearfully confesses to his dismal loneliness without her, stays the night, and leaves the next morning without betraying even a trace of the prior evening’s vulnerability.
Sungjoon goes out drinking on the three nights that follow, now with his friend Youngho (Kim Sang-joong) and Youngho’s pretty colleague Boram (Song Sun-mi)—both film people—in tow. They frequent an otherwise empty bar where the proprietress, Yejeon, bears a Xerox resemblance to Kyungjin; soon enough, she falls into bed with Sungjoon as well. (Bo-kyung plays the double role.)
The name of Yejeon’s bar is translated as “Novel,” an ironic pun, for there is little novelty to the schedule of Sungjoon and his circle, so little progress between their evenings that they could almost be shuffled into any order. Conversational cues are reheated like leftovers. Each night, Sungjoon plays the same piece on the piano and silently takes melancholy text messages from Kyungjin.
The Day He Arrives is shot in black-and-white HD, almost entirely in long takes, which sit back and observe the conversational flow of Hong’s particular brand of barroom philosophizing. “Random things happen for no reason in our lives,” goes a typical bit from Sungjoon. “We choose a few and form a line of thought . . . made by all these dots, which we call a reason.”
In filmmaking, these “dots” are called scenes, and they do illustrate something in The Day He Arrives, like what the great critic Manny Farber found in Eric Rohmer’s 1969 My Night at Maud’s: “Moving along through small, unpointed, often unconnected events, it gets to the component parts of this class’s life.” Farber was talking about cultivated French provincials, but Hong does much the same as ethnographer of South Korean cognoscenti. And like Rohmer, Hong is wonderful with atmospheric effects, using whirling snowfalls to place his characters’ inchoate longing in relief. (There is a lingering morning-after scene of the principals waiting on the curb for a cab in light, damp snow that is simply perfect.)
“I saw my limits,” says Sungjoon of his retreat from active life. “It’s the same thing as finding yourself.” Something similar could be said of Hong’s filmmaking—the specificity of his subject matter gives his seemingly inconsequential films an unaccountable power. Sungjoon and friends are mostly beer drinkers, but the cumulative effect of The Day He Arrives is closer to a night with Soju: You empty the bottle and think it has affected you not at all . . . right until it’s time to stand up and head home.