September Issue 2012
Foreign Film Review: The Day He Arrives
If you like films with tightly knit plots, high-adrenaline action and nail-biting suspense, then The Day He Arrives isn’t for you. And if you have little patience for reading subtitles or watching stories unwind that seem to be about nothing then this film is certainly not for you.
But, for the patient viewer and seasoned cinephile, this film directed by revered South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-Soo is certainly worth watching. The rather odd, yet poetic, black-and-white film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and made it to US cinemas only this summer, but it remains quite obscure even though film critics, Roger Ebert and Richard Brody in particular, have sung its praises.
The central character, Yoo Seongjun is a filmmaker who, after going on hiatus from the world of cinema, returns to Seoul to meet an old friend. Yoo, with his affable smile and slight awkwardness, is an easily likable protagonist. He meets acquaintances and admirers, gets drunk and then shows up unexpectedly at an old flame’s apartment. He then unexpectedly breaks down and sobs pathetically before his ex-girlfriend and though the scene isn’t heart-breaking, it borders on the comical. And that’s the gist of the film — you don’t really know what to make of it.
The film focuses on the small, everyday things that are universal in both their insignificance and poetry. As the film progresses one feels a sense of dÃ©jÃ vu, that things aren’t quite as they should be. Yoo and his friends frequent a bar, but each visit is a first for him. And if that isn’t enough, the director teases the audience by calling the bar Novelty. Scenes repeat, but with different outcomes. It’s as if conversations and encounters are the building blocks of a single day and the film presents different permutations of them to see how the course of the day is affected.
When it comes to Korean cinema, international audiences are perhaps most familiar with gory horror films such as Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy. The Day He Arrives, however, brings to mind French New Wave cinema, which eschewed conventional narrative techniques in favour of a more experimental style. In fact, many reviewers have drawn comparisons to works by French auteurs such as Eric Rohmer and Alain Resnais. In a nutshell, The Day He Arrives is a sweet yet bewildering film, which despite its humble setting and banalities, surprises you with its beauty.
This review was originally published in the September issue of Newsline.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.