"Not many people have seen my films," says Seongjun (Jun-Sang Yu), the impulsive filmmaker at the center of "The Day He Arrives," the latest characteristically rambling character study from Korean director Hong Sang-soo. In one of many cases where art imitates life in a Hong movie, Seongjun's complaint reflects the general unfamiliarity with Hong's work in the United States. Churning out curiously structured narrative experiences in a roughly one-film-a-year cycle, Hong has crafted a dozen features since 1996's "The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well" (his next one, "In Another Country," is expected at Cannes next month). Despite the sizable filmography and a distinctive voice holding it together, festival awards and plenty of critical acclaim, Hong remains a storyteller whose talents are known only by a privileged few.
Fortunately, "The Day He Arrives," the first Hong movie released in the U.S. since "Woman on the Beach" in 2008, provides an ideal entry point to the director's work, especially when viewed alongside his previous effort, "Oki's Movie," which has landed a one-week run this week at New York's Maysles Cinema. Both "The Day He Arrives" and "Oki's Movie" involve filmmakers who threaten to retire while hovering in a constant state of ambiguity about what they really want for themselves, a mindset reflected by Hong's structural loopiness.
However, "Oki's Movie" provides no easy access point for those who aren't hip to Hong's fixation on interrogating the nature of the viewing experience. Like 2010's "HaHaHa," in which a pair of unreliable narrators exchange stories of recent experiences and end up getting their tales confused, nothing is entirely certain in "Oki's Movie." The film takes the form of several shorts involving interlocking characters at various stages of their lives and mainly dealing with relationship problems. An older film professor contemplates retirement while his students grapple with their own projects. The lingering possibility that we're actually watching their films is a mystery never resolved by the final end credits. Viewed as a single experience, "Oki's Movie" is a curious oddity worthy of multiple viewings and lengthy contemplation, but its tricky formalism makes it less overtly satisfying on an emotional level.
"The Day He Arrives," however, maintains a funny and sad focus on its single petulant subject. The evocative black-and-white photography draws out Seongjun's mundane experiences as he travels from his country home to Seoul for three days to visit an old friend. Scenes repeat themselves several times: Seongjun runs into a young woman familiar with his work and hoping to land a role in his non-existent next movie, gets drunk at a bar with his pal and bangs out a mournful tune on the piano at a local pub, manages passionate texts from his not-quite-ex-girlfriend, and makes out with a new woman he meets who looks just like the former flame. Seongjun's life has grown empty, no matter how much admiration he receives from others about his filmmaking, because he can't find a way to rejuvenate the cycle of nothingness surrounding him.
That's not to say that "The Day He Arrives" is an utter downer. Neurotic to the core and routinely baffling friends and fans alike, Seongjun is an amusingly unpredictable creation always searching for the right means of expressing himself and usually failing, with comical results. He either complains too much or too little. He visits an old girlfriend's house and breaks down in tears before leaving moments later and explaining, in utter seriousness, that they should never see each other again. The lack of finality to his behavior sometimes lends a cumbersome weight to proceedings that could benefit from more levity; those desiring some grand climax will come away perplexed. However, "The Day He Arrives" garners impact from its mirroring of the difficulty involved in being oneself around various different people.
Every Hong film is an investigation into the nature of communication. "The Day He Arrives" falls neatly into that tradition with an engine of talky scenes almost exclusively captured with static master shots and sudden zooms that highlight the minutiae of a given conversation. Seongjun makes a good subject for this approach because he's always on the cusp of shifting his behavior. "Everyone has two extremes," his friend says over the course of a wide-ranging philosophical conversation, and Seongjun regularly slides between them. A hilariously fickle creation, he drinks with some admiring young filmmakers and then dashes away from them in mid-conversation with no explanation. He's angry, sad, friendly and shy in equal measures: a truly three-dimensional creation.
In "Oki's Movie," the retiring film professor advises a student unable to find the clarity in her work. "Your sincerity needs its own form," he says. "The form will take you to the truth." This is certainly the case in "The Day He Arrives" and other Hong films that utilize cinematic innovation to make their worlds live and breathe. Sometimes, life can feel like a movie or beg for descriptions in those terms. Hong movies, however, resemble the uncertainty of knowing the boundaries between reality and drama, actuality and projection, objectivity and subjectivity, construction and improvisation. Life never feels quite like a Hong movie, but Hong movies often tap into the many things about life that we would otherwise not notice.
"The Day He Arrives": B+
"Oki's Movie": B
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? Cinema Guild releases "The Day He Arrives" on Friday at New York's Lincoln Plaza Cinemas with a national release to follow. While unlikely to attract crowds, the mounting curiosity among U.S. arthouse audiences in Hong's work may help propel it to solid numbers over the course of several weeks. "Oki's Movie" opens today at New York's Maysles Cinema, where it should attract ample interest among local cinephiles.