Sunday, August 26, 2012

KOFFIA 2012: The Day He Arrives (북촌 방향, Book-chon Bang-hyang) 2011

Part of MKC's coverage of the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia (previously published).

As far as the critical discourse of Korean cinema goes, few filmmakers have a more commanding presence than Hong Sang-soo, whose flowing narratives often feel like chapters in the same grand story.  In a sense, his body of work reminds me of some of the 19th century’s most prolific French writers, such as Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola whose main outputs consisted of The Human Comedy and the Rougon-Macquart cycles, which consisted of 91 and 20 volumes respectively.  In these exceedingly rich opuses, the French wordsmiths crafted dense worlds, which mirrored the societies they lived in and repeated the same themes and concerns through similar stories and with large casts of revolving characters.

Hong’s output is much less concerned with the high-flown dramatics of the far-reaching stories of these previously mentioned collections.  Indeed his films, especially for an uninitiated viewer, offer a vague semblance of banality and rarely fall into the trap of narrative twists or plot contrivances, choosing to focus on the everyday rather than the extremes of life.  What he shares with Balzac and Zola is a keen interest in realism.  For the French writers this style was labeled naturalism and often explored social injustice and the inescapable force of heredity in the shaping of human characters.  While Hong’s films do not share those specific traits, they do exhibit a similarly acute infatuation with repetition.  People make the same choices and mistakes over and over again.  It’s a funny thing about reviews of Hong’s work but more than most other filmmakers, his whole career tends to be put under the microscope, likely because his films so resemble one another. 

But that’s enough about Hong’s previous films for the moment, let’s talk about his new one The Day He Arrives, which is his 12th.  For his new feature, Hong has opted to shoot in black and white, something he hasn’t done since his third film Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), which really put him on the map (so much for not talking about his other films).  The story takes place over a few days and follows Seong-joon (Yoo Joon-sang), a filmmaker on hiatus, as he briefly returns to Seoul to meet up with old friends and girlfriends and make new acquaintances, mostly during sessions of eating and drinking.

Repetition is an integral part of Hong’s new film, there are few actions or pieces of dialogue that are not replayed during its brief running time (79 minutes).  Eating, drinking, or smoking accompanies every scene and it’s not for nothing.  Typically, these three actions are endlessly repeated throughout our lives (unless you quit drinking or smoking) irrespective of the change we may perceive in ourselves and others.  As Hong’s characters shuffle about the same bars and restaurants and engage in cyclical discussions about their concerns for the past, present, and future, their layers of outward calm gradually come undone and we get closer to the raw emotions and neuroses at their core.

Early on in The Day He Arrives Seong-joon drops in drunk and unannounced on his ex-girlfriend, whom he hasn’t seen for a few years.  It’s an emotional moment as we are first confronted with her anger at his having seemingly abandoned her, but soon after it becomes clear that they both still have very strong feelings for one another.  After sharing a tender moment he leaves but not before stating that they should refrain from engaging in any further communication.  Nevertheless, she texts him occasionally throughout the rest of the film, while he embarks on an amorous encounter with a bar owner who is her doppelganger (played by the same actress, Kim Bo-kyeong).  It is never explained why they split but the fact that there is some reason that they can’t be together is alluded to.

It is said that throughout life we tend to repeat our previous mistakes.  Seong-joon is clearly hiding from something as he dodders around the countryside on an indefinite break from filmmaking and his return to Seoul forces him to confront these past troubles.  Though since we are not privy to very much information, it is hard to say to what degree he does this.  He abandoned both his girlfriend and career as he ran away from Seoul and it is possible he did so through some fear of commitment or growing up.  On his return to the capital he is frequently asked when he will make his next film, his answers are uniformly vague and noncommittal.  After bedding his girlfriend’s lookalike, he leaves her in the morning, offering her much same words as he did to his ex a few days earlier, that they shouldn’t see each other anymore.

Hong seems to have settled more and more into his idiosyncratic style of filmmaking as his films have gotten progressively funnier.  The Day He Arrives is frequently hilarious and while it has a fairly tight structure it seems effortless and relaxed, this is in large part due to the performances that he draws from his leads (especially Yoo and Kim Sang-joon), which are very naturalistic.  He also plays around a little bit with the mise-en-scene, something he does with most of his films, like the freezeframe dialogues that punctuate HaHaHa (2010).  During a number of the midshots, most of which take place at drinking or eating establishments with two characters sitting on one side of a table facing another across from them, Hong quickly zooms in, pushing the protagonists to the very edges of the frame.  The effect is deliberately jarring and the claustrophobic reframing creates a more intense atmosphere which often signals the beginning of a confrontation.

For me The Day He Arrives turned into a fairly personal experience as much of it hit close to home and I am sure that I am not the only person who experienced this.  Hong Sang-soo is an artist who trades in the everyday; his currency is the prosaic minutiae of the exchanges and relationships that make up our lives.  Just like the great French naturalists, he succeeds in burrowing down to our core by forcing us to look inwards, again and again, until we recognize ourselves in a simple shrug of the shoulders or a little white lie.  I look forward to the next volume in Hong’s oeuvre, to experience his wit and craft anew and perhaps to discover a little bit more about myself.


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