Did you hear the one about the down-on-his-luck filmmaker having a soju-soused reckoning of the soul? If you’re familiar with the oeuvre of Korea’s prolific Hong Sang-soo (Oki’s Movie), then you’re surely aware that this is one of his recurrent templates. Equally unsurprisingly, the writer-director’s variations on this same theme continue to reward.
A 25-words-or-less pitch for The Day He Arrives—shot in luminous black-and-white—might go something like: “Hong Sang-soo does Groundhog Day.” Sungjoon (Yu Jun-Sang), a moviemaker in maybe-permanent retirement, comes to Seoul to visit a friend over a long weekend. On the first day, he runs into a performer he used to know, drinks with some sycophantic film students and pays an impromptu visit to his ex-girlfriend. On the second, he runs into a performer he used to know, drinks with his friend and meets a woman who looks exactly like his ex-girlfriend. On the third…
By then, we’re questioning whether Sungjoon’s life, with minor aberration, is metaphorically or literally repeating itself. Hong doesn’t give us any distinct hints as to the truth of this potential fantasy: Sungjoon seems to remember certain characters from previous encounters, yet not others; the people he meets act with similar unpredictability. And why does snow blanket the city one day but is completely gone the next? We’re not meant to decode this kind of abstract ambiguity, but to immerse ourselves in it until we fully share Sungjoon’s existential predicament. That’s par for the course with Hong; ultimately, it’s energizing to realize that there is no exit.
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