CAPSULE: THE DAY HE ARRIVES (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Sang-soo Hong

FEATURING: Jun-Sang Yu, Bo-kyung Kim, Sang Jung Kim

PLOT: A director who no longer makes movies arrives in Seoul to touch bases with an old friend; he gets drunk, meets various acquaintances and colleagues, and then situations start to repeat themselves, with variations.

Still from The Day He Arrives (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s got a subtly weird edge to it, but like its protagonist the film is too meandering and listless to demand more than our temporary interest.

COMMENTS: The Day He Arrives probably resembles nothing so much as a series of hazy recollections of a blackout drinking binge, where events keep getting jumbled up and you can’t remember whether it was Monday of Tuesday night when you mashed faces with that waitress in the alley, or even whether it really happened or you just wanted it to. The story starts with film director Sungjoon arriving in Seoul to meet an old friend; he’s stood up, but he encounters an actress he used to know, spends an evening getting drunk with three films students, then makes his way to the apartment of an ex-girlfriend to make a pathetic, teary pass at her. The next day (at least, we assume its the next day) he meets the same actress again, then meets up with his friend. They go to a bar with the friend’s girlfriend for a night of drinking, and are joined by the bar’s owner, who looks exactly like the girlfriend whose apartment the director just left the night before with promises that they would never meet again. From this point on, events in the story begin repeating themselves, but with variations. Every day, Sungjoon runs into the actress again on the street, and every night he and his friend return to the bar (ironically called “Novel”), sometimes joined by a new companion. Lines of dialogue and events repeat themselves, and characters we’ve seen interacting together before act as if they’ve never met. Each time Sungoon accidentally bumps into the actress on the street, however, they remember their last conversation, implying a chronologically continuity at odds with the fugue-like repetitions of the barroom scenes. After going on like this for a little while, the film ends arbitraily. Overall, Day paints a portrait of a man adrift in the world, a man who’s smart and observant yet doomed to make the same mistakes over and over. He’s a lost soul, but in an extremely polite and genteel way. The Day He Arrives is unique, but it inevitably evokes comparisons to many previous movies, from Last Year in Marienbad to Groundhog Day to (thanks to the actress playing dual roles) Vertigo. With its dramatic relationship basis enhanced by curious narrative experiments whose significance is not at all clear, it’s also reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s recent Certified Copy.  Of those two films, I preferred Day, because it’s more economical (i.e. shorter) and it has a better sense of humor than the often self-important Copy. I suspect anyone who liked the one will respond well to the other. Both movies appear aimed at sophisticated viewers who consider subtlety an unconditional virtue. I can’t say I subscribe to that view: I prefer movies that transcend the mundane rather than wallowing in it, movies with a “wow” factor. Lacking that, a movie should at least offer an engaging plot, characters I can care about, or a stimulating intellectual idea to mull over; this movie makes a stab only at the last of these criteria. The Day He Arrives never gets around to suggesting what it’s about (which isn’t necessarily a problem); it also never makes a case as to why we should care (which is a problem).

Sang-soo Hong’s movies all feature lots and lots of drinking. If his hour-long interview included on the Day He Arrives is to be believed, his cinematic depictions of marathon drinking bouts come from personal experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Hong offers a strange mixture of magic, mystery, rueful melodrama and dry comedy that’s like absolutely nothing else.”–Andre O’Hehir, Salon.com (contemporaneous)

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