THE DAY HE ARRIVES
Egyptian-Spielberg, 11/7/2011, 4:15 p.m.
Egyptian-Spielberg, 11/8/2011, 7:15 p.m.
By Kelsey Brain
The title of Hong Sang-soo’s latest feature, THE DAY HE ARRIVES, gives the premise away but little else. From the opening moments, we are stranded alongside Seonjun, a former film director on a visit to Seoul after having taken up a teaching position elsewhere. With the sharpened sense of a traveler in unfamiliar surroundings, we become sensitized to the smallest gestures and faintest hints of emotion that betray the impulsive, panicked and infantilized emotional lives of him and his peers. Hong both identifies with and keeps a clinical distance from Seonjun, and he creates a liminal zone between farce and tragedy that makes one laugh and wince simultaneously.
In terms of his deadpan approach to human relationships, Hong is masterfully simplistic. Constructed as a series of individual episodes, we experience every scene anew, and must regain our bearings through ironically distanced observations, wherein the humor arises. A few scenes even begin so identically that they initially seem like replays or alternate takes, which makes the subtle (or not-so-subtle) inconsistencies of Seonjun more effectively felt. Framed and edited with a dry, knowing sense of human relationships, the overall story acts as a penetrating commentary that pokes fun at the characters.
With a minimum of camera setups, Hong creates complex scenes that, for the viewer, puncture the surface of the characters’ pretences while, for the characters, keeping them intact. For instance, early in the film, Seonjun stops outside an apartment building. “Is she still living here?” he muses. She, Kyungjin, is not excited to see him again. His small talk devolves into a spectacular outburst of groveling, which she strongly resists until she too breaks down. This is captured in a single, unembellished shot, the very indifference of which makes it hysterically funny.
From the brief moment of high-strung, emotional melodrama, the scene abruptly cuts to a placid image of their shoes by the front door. Pacified by an experience the editing has quietly passed over, Kyungjin meekly accedes to Seonjun’s declaration never to meet again. Finally, we’re left watching the pathetic moments of their goodbye capped with Seonjun’s patronizing yet ironically sensible last words, “Be strong.” With a cheesy wave he’s gone, and their relationship is back to how we found it.
Hong isn’t interested in explaining the characters or in passing judgment. In the above-mentioned scene, there are changes throughout, but nothing definitive. What we see is the inconstant and ever shifting desires of characters, which may not make them easy to pin down but does maintain a reality that is fully comprehensible and fundamentally human, not to mention hilarious.
Kelsey Brain lives and works in Los Angeles.