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Hong weaves charming maze in black-and-white

Aug. 28, 2011 - 18:10 By
A has-been filmmaker who now teaches cinema in Daegu visits Seoul. He meets up with his long-time buddy, visits his old girlfriend, drinks and dines, gets talking with some people he’s just met, and falls for an attractive bar owner who strikingly resembles with his ex.

Hong Sang-soo’s 12th film, “The Day He Arrives,” offers an interesting cinematic portrait of a frustrated and often pathetic artist, while exhibiting Hong’s signature repetition and variation.
A scene from director Hong Sang-soo’s “The Day He Arrives” (Finecut)

The movie was the opener for the 5th Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival (CinDi), which kicked off on Aug. 17 in southern Seoul. It has also been invited to this year’s Un Certain Regard at Cannes, the same coveted side bar section where Hong received the top prize last year with “HaHaHa.”

Shot in black and white, the film follows the used-to-be filmmaker Seong-jun (Yoo Jun-sang) during his stay in Seoul in the winter season. He walks around Bukchon district, which is well known for its traditional houses and its cafes and galleries.

While strolling down streets of Bukchon, Seong-jun runs into an actress acquaintance, and ends up drinking with a group of film students who know little of his work. Drunk and sentimental, he then spontaneously visits his ex-girlfriend Kyung-jin (Kim Bo-kyung), and weeps pathetically while telling her she is the only true love of his life. Kyung-jin, who is reluctant at first, gives in and lets him stay for the night.

Whether it’s the next day or some other day, Seong-jun is once again in Bukchon. He runs into the actress again, who seems both awkward and desperate to make connections in the film industry, and meets up with his long-time friend and film critic, Young-ho (Kim Sang-jung). Through Young-ho he is introduced to film professor Boram (Song Sun-mi) and the three hit a bar called “Novel.” There Seong-jun quickly falls for Ye-jeon (Kim Bo-kyung), the obedient and pretty bar owner. In hopes of getting her attention, Seong-jun volunteers to play Chopin piece on the piano, which sounds awfully corny in the context of the film. He follows Ye-jeon as she steps out of the store to get food, and kisses her.

Then the maze begins, as the movie repeats Seong-jun’s day a few times with slight variations. Seong-jun either spends the next few days that are very similar to the one he just had, or the viewers are presented with a few slightly different versions of the day by deft Hong. The black and white effect creates charming ambiguity, as it makes it harder for the audience to differentiate each day from another.

The two women who are involved with Seong-jun ― Kyung-jin and Ye-jeon ― are both played by actress Kim Bo-kyung. There is something disturbingly mysterious about the Ye-jeon character, who resembles Seong-jun’s ex and would very often leave her store unattended for unknown reasons. She leaves to get food whenever Seong-jun receives corny text messages from his frustrated ex Kyung-jin, and almost obediently ― to many viewers’ surprise ― accepts his kiss outside her store.

As both Kyung-jin and Ye-jeon easily fall for Seong-jun’s almost ridiculous pickup lines and awfully lame post break-up rhetoric, Hong also leaves a room for an interpretation that the two characters may be the same person, or Ye-jeon (whose name literally means the ‘past’) is a fictional character or an ideal version of Kyung-jin in Seong-jun’s male oriented fantasy. After all, Ye-jeon’s bar is called “novel.”

The simple plotted movie leaves many interpretations to be drawn ― Seong-jun’s trip to Seoul can both be a mere male fantasy or a distorted memory, or a bit of both with his own version of reality. And that’s the charm of the film, as it manages to be layered while only dealing with some seemingly random and corny moments and coincidences in life.

“The Day He Arrives” opens in theaters on Sept. 8.

By Claire Lee (