The primary reason why "Groundhog Day" works (besides the casting, pacing, easygoing charm and humor) is that the little town of Punxsutawney is the physical embodiment of what we all feel occasionally: a startling inability, even for a moment, to tell one day from the next. Call it a forced sense of deja vu, it's what Seongjun (Jun-Sang Yu), the lead of Hong Sang-soo's patient and trying "The Day He Arrives" is experiencing.
Seongjun, a film director who's uneasily transitioned to teaching, is listless in a way that seems to impact not only his everyday, but also that of his friends and lovers. In the course of 79 minutes, Hong Sang-soo's film lays out several days (but how many?) starting with Seongjun's visit to Seoul. The character keeps running into the same people, going out for drinks at the same place and romancing women in the same way. Intentional? Naturally, but "The Day He Arrives" pulls off something unusual: by deftly tweaking the encounters while maintaining the same camera angles and screen space, Hong Sang-soo's film embodies deja vu and makes us question the veracity of what we are seeing. Now if only the film was generally enjoyable outside of that successful experiment.
Seongjun has taken a break from filmmaking that is either voluntary or forced. Drinking with a trio of film students who are marginally familiar with his work, he muses on whether it really matters. The here-and-now, the day-in, day-out nature of his life has taken hold. Yet while Seongjun expounds on how people strive to note coincidence and pattern in their own lives even as countless other random events go unnoticed, he turns a blind eye to the repetition all around. Meeting up with Young-ho (Kim Sang-joong), the two men end up at a bar named “Novel,” hardly fitting since the events that play out over the course of several evenings mimic each other, right down to bits of dialogue.
Toying with the bar piano for kicks, Seongjun ponders the possibility of igniting a romance with bar owner Ye-jeon (Kim Bo-kyung). The thing is, and here spoilers may abound for the less attentive, Ye-jeon bares more than a passing resemble to Kyung-jin, a former lover at whose feet Seongjun went to pieces earlier in the film. There’s nothing really resembling a plot herein, and the connection is never noted, but it is poignant since it seems the director and the bar owner go through the same emotional rollercoaster we glimpsed at the very beginning of the film – as lovers, invisibly scorned and always longing.
Shot in elegant black and white, "The Day He Arrives" demands patience. Hong Sang-soo’s unobtrusive style of filmmaking basically has the director put down a camera and capture a lengthy conversation in a master shot, with the occasional (and occasionally inelegant) zoom. The method suits the themes of the film – why vary coverage when telling a story about a man who hardly notices that the motions he’s going through are barely different day to day. That said, while there’s no weak link in the cast and the running time is mercifully brief, the film doesn’t leave much of an impression.
The ideas at the heart of "The Day He Arrives" are worth puzzling over and the discussion to follow may be the real reward, but the experience is muted. Some will mistake the subdued tone for hollowness, as this writer did early on, but if you stick it out and take the film in, a more genuine frustration may set in – not because of the filmmaking but rather because you are moved to see Seongjun unknowingly fall into unchanging straits. Or perhaps he does know what his life has become reduced to and chooses to remain. Food for thought, anyone? [B-]