Seong-Jun (Yu Jun-Sang), a former filmmaker, now reclusive to the countryside, treks through Seoul to meet an old friend, or so he claims to the film enthusiasts who interrupt his mission. Seong-Jun is unsure of himself around these entities; an eager actress he once worked with and a pack of male film students, sheepishly star-struck, but ultimately innocuous, that serve as reminders of his past as a director. His plans to meet his firend are further delayed when he stumbles into the arms of an ex-lover, who reluctantly takes him in, but not without tears. The two decide to call it quits.
Seong-Jun finally meets his friend Young Ho, a film critic, and together with pretty film prof. Boram, they take refuge in Novel, a bar deserted by both patrons and employees. When the curiously absent though apologetic bartender returns, baring suspicious resemblance to Seong-Jun’s ex, the film advances a half-step from grounded reality to distant reverie. In voice over our hero exclaims, “She looks exactly like her!” She is in fact played by the same actress, in Hong’s pointed doubling.
The bulk of the film takes place in the warm glow of the bar. Little happens in the way of cinematic showmanship. Hong’s shots are as relaxed as the characters are carefree. The most significant device is the unnatural (and self-referential) zooming in and out — the director's signature — on the face of a character in this HD shot film.
The next three nights of drinking and talking bleed into one, with each scarcely distinguishable from the next as any lush can confirm. The concept of time, the hour of the night, and position on the narrative map all muddle, as the characters slip into philosophical conversations from the previous booze-laden rendezvous. The episodes start to repeat: gushing (or sneering) at a clumsy rendition of Mozart; disapproving of the bartender’s absence; brushing off lonely text messages. Even the actress from the beginning crops up again. The minor details are modified, but the patterns are hard not to miss.
Hong Song-Soo has substituted in place of the empty corridors and endless hallways of Marienbad, the hilly paved streets of Bukchon village and downy snowflakes. A rear tracking-shot through the doorway of the bar, too reminds of Renais’ shots through that infamous chateau, where certain events may or may not have happened.
The Day He Arrives is also a careful study of behavior as the director, like Rohmer to whom he is appropriately compared, illuminates the small moments, those that are overlooked or masked behind alcohol-besotted veneers- the underlying resentment of a scorned old friend, and the unconcern from the director (Seong-Jun, not Hong) who avoids the very subject. By contrast, Young Ho’s outburst, albeit mild, towards Boram breaks the repetition of these scenarios, playing on a loop and signifies the end of the cycle. The intoxication levels reach a high as well in this segment and one of the friends wobbles a steady line towards vomiting as others hail him a cab.
“Random things happen for a reason in our lives. We choose a few and form a line of thought made by all these dots we call reason.” Spoken confidently and with the slightest acquiescence by Seong-Jun, it’s humorous and slightly depressing to see that he has done just that; favored certain things over others and in this case, choosing to move from one woman to the next while failing to recognize the lost opportunities, like the actress constantly inviting him for to have coffee, or his small troupe of fanboys. Yet he continues to steer clear of the current ambitious youth and instead seeks out a new, warm body.
“I saw my limits,” Seong-Jun says. “It’s the same as finding yourself.” One cannot help but wonder if it is also an admission of the prolific director Hong himself, who has been met with criticism for recurrent subject matter. Even when he’s failing to stake out new territory, Hong has made a charming film, which clocking in just under eighty minutes, should put detractors at ease.