“Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.”
For some reason, this final line from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket was stuck in my head while rewatching The Day He Arrives. There’s no apparent relation between the two, though I have been thinking about a bit about Hong Sangsoo’s oft-cited admiration for Bresson. It is a strange path that Yoo Junsang follows in the film, for sure, one that winds back on itself at least three times, but where it ends up I can’t say. Yoo plays a film director, Seongjun, who now lives in a small town where he teaches. He comes to Seoul in the black and white wintertime to visit an old friend. His first day there, the friend is busy and so Seongjun drinks with a trio of young men, film students who recognized him on the street. Late in the evening, Seongjun runs away from the boys, annoyed that they are copying him by lighting cigarettes at the same time he does. Extremely drunk, he drops in on his ex-girlfriend’s apartment and tearfully begs her to take him back. They part the next morning, he promising never to see her again while she plans to send him text messages from time to time.
The next day, maybe, Seongjun meets up with his friend, Youngho, and the two go for drinks along with a woman, Boram, a friend of Youngho’s. They go to a bar called “Novel” where they are eventually joined by the pretty but late-arriving bar owner, Yejeon, played by the same actress who played Seongjun’s ex-girlfriend (Kim Bokyung). Late in the evening, Seongjun goes outside to smoke, hoping that Yejeon will join him, but Boram does instead. Eventually, everyone goes home.
The next day, maybe, Seongjun meets up with Youngho and an actor friend named Joongwon, who had played the lead in Seongjun’s first film. He’s played by Kim Euisung, who played one of the leads in Hong Sangsoo’s first film, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well The three men have dinner, and then go to a bar called “Novel” where they meet with Boram and are eventually joined by the pretty but late-arriving bar owner, Yejeon. Late in the evening, Seongjun goes outside to smoke and, as snow begins to fall, the owner comes out, on her way to buy some food for the group. Seongjun joins her and, on the way back, he kisses her. Eventually, everyone goes home.
The next day, maybe, Seongjun meets up with Youngho and, hastily avoiding the three film students, the two have dinner in a restaurant with Boram. Later, the three go to a bar called “Novel” where they are eventually joined by the pretty but late-arriving bar owner, Yejeon. Late in the evening, Seongjun goes outside to smoke and joins Yejeon as she leaves to get some food. He apologizes for being so forward, but she insists he hasn’t done anything. Then he kisses her. Eventually, everyone goes home, except the owner, who stays in a small bedroom in the back of the bar, and Seongjun, who joins her there. The next morning, he leaves and promises to not see her again.
On this final morning, which might be the next day, Seongjun tries to meet up with Youngho, but he says he is busy. Walking the streets as it begins to snow, Seongjun meets a series of people, all connected in some way to film: a director, a producer, a composer, and a fan, who takes his photo with a camera. Here the movie ends.
During their second night at Novel, Boram describes how she met four people on the street: a producer, a director, a composer, and a student, all connected to film. The mystery of this coincidence fascinates her, she wants to know the reason. In Woman on the Beach, the director proposes a film about a man obsessed with discovering the reason behind his hearing the same piece of music in three different places on the same day. In Oki’s Movie, the young director draws a picture of a discarded carton of milk sitting beside him on a park bench, saying to himself “I’ll know everything if I know why this is here. However small, it affected me and changed the whole universe. Why did this have to be here. . . . Why right here, right now?” Seongjun, though, doesn’t believe in coincidence. He says, “There is no reason. Random things happen for no reason in our lives. We choose a few and form a line of thought. . . . made by all these dots which we call a reason. . . . We can’t help but make up judgements, but many untraceable forces are at work in reality. That’s probably why our actions are fallible and sometimes lead to disaster.” The reference to dots recalls the director’s explanation of how he understands the woman he loves in Woman on the Beach: she too is made up of dots, impressions, images, thoughts that form a whole but that can become distorted by negative ideas (in this case, the thought of her sleeping with foreign men). It seems that for Hong’s directors, there is very little difference between people and reality: they’re always variable, always contingent, there’s no reason why reality is the way it is, or why people are the way they are. At least, there’s no reason we can possibly comprehend.
There’s so much to explore in The Day He Arrives: the brilliant editing (love how Hong always abruptly cuts to the owner walking down the alleyway to the bar into the middle of a conversation, only to cut back and continue the conversation, with the owner not arriving until just a few beats longer than you'd think she should); the gorgeous black and white emphasizing the crispness of the winter cold, highlighted by falling snowflakes; that snow itself as a marker of time, appearing and disappearing at different times every “day”; but the obvious pleasure is in the unfathomable structure, always moving forward, but in a circle.
“Things repeat themselves with differences I can’t understand”, Oki says. Seongjun understands reality as a series of coincidences the origin of which we can’t possible trace. There’s no reason why, not in any practical sense, and so he doesn’t try. His world is a loop because he’s stuck in an eternal present, always the same thing because he’s stopped striving for understanding. Seongjun has given up filmmaking after four features (The Day He Arrives was Hong’s twelfth, three times as many. Hong’s fourth was On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate), just as he’s renounced the woman he loves (“That’s good for me and best for you,” he tells his ex-girlfriend when he lies and says he won’t see her again. In fact, he sees her everywhere). But time keeps slipping into his present: the girlfriend texts him everyday, everyday a new love note. Unlike most everyone else he meets, Seongjun seems to have a memory of his repeated past: he remembers his behavior to the film students and he mixes up past and present just before he kisses the bar owner for the second time. Every day, Seongjun meets an actress (Park Soomin), now working as a film professor (the students are hers). She too seems to remember these meetings, she notes how strange it is that they keep running into each other. “No need to make up a reason for it,” Seongjun says, “Just take in these marvels of life.” But he doesn’t meet her on the last day. Instead the woman he meets takes his picture. She’s played by Go Hyunjung, who played the woman who took over the narrative of Woman on the Beach (she was also the blob made of dots) and the woman the director loves in Like You Know It All. Seongjun insists he doesn’t like having his picture taken, as the young director in Oki’s Movie did and as Kim Minhee will in Claire’s Camera, but he allows it anyway. Will it change him, as Claire’s camera (maybe) does? Or will it succeed finally in freezing him in place? Not knowing, he looks deeply uncomfortable.
Joongwon is very angry with Seongjun. Apparently, after starring in his first film, Seongjun had promised him another role but then never called. In fact, Kim Euisung, after playing the drunken writer in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, appeared in two films in 1997 and then doesn’t have a single imdb credit until 2011 and The Day He Arrives. Since then, he has worked steadily in several mainstream Korean films, and has become an integral part of Hong’s stock company, with memorable roles in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Hill of Freedom, and the lead in the short 50:50. ↩︎