English Title: The Day He Arrives
Korean Title: 북촌 방향/Bugchon Banghyang/In the Direction of Bukchon
Premiere Date: May 19, 2011
U.S. Release Year: 2012
Festival: Cannes (Un Certain Regard)
Film Number: 12
First Viewing Number: 1
First Viewing Date: October 9, 2016
Viewing Number: 4
Ranking (at beginning of run): 2
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 13
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 1
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 2
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):
Running Time: 79 minutes (22nd longest)
Color/Black & White: Black & White
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Five unequal parts, heavy repetition
Recurring Actors: Yoo Joon-sang (third appearance), Go Hyun-jung (third appearance), Gi Ju-bong (third appearance), Song Seon-mi (second appearance), Kim Eui-sung (second appearance), Baek Jong-hak (second appearance), Kim Sang-jung (first appearance), Ahn Jae-hong (first appearance), Bae Yu-ram (first appearance), Baek Hyeon-jin (first appearance)
Season: Winter (end of year)
Weather: Cloudy, snowy
Alcohol: Max beer, Johnnie Walker Black Label, soju, makgeolli
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, water, Perrier
Food: Grilled fish, beef, instant noodles, dumplings, peanuts, fruit, cookies, cherry tomatoes, rice
Drinking Scenes: 6
Creative People: Film directors, actors, critics
Academia: Film professors and students
Dream Sequences: 0-5
Film Screening: N/A
Films Within Films: N/A
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: 2
Number of Shots: 64
Number of Zooms: 22 out, 38 in
Music Style: Enchanting synth piano and strings and horns
Title Background: Red background/Blue background for closing credits
It’s only fitting that what qualifies most for a consensus favorite Hong — at least among his admirers — is among the strangest and most unclassifiable in his oeuvre. The Day He Arrives has always held an enormous sway over my perception of Hong — it was the first one I ever saw, the day before I turned 19 — and, unless something drastically changes during this project, is my second favorite Hong, an opinion I incidentally share with Sean, Evan, and Dan among presumably many others. But I feel like my perception of it changes every time, and even though this is the first Hong feature so far that I’ve watched multiple times (four now, albeit not in four years), my memory also seems to leave out a good number of things. This is probably appropriate as well: the structure of the film is among Hong’s most slippery, easily interpretable in an infinite number of ways, though the mysteries of the film only begin there.
The Day He Arrives is a truly great and foreboding English title, but in some ways, the Korean title, which roughly translates to In the Direction of Bukchon, is maybe an even more fitting starting point. Referring to the village within Seoul where the film takes place while suggesting that it never truly arrives, the title immediately foregrounds the place, which has been preserved to look like how an urban village would have looked 600 years ago. While this is only really apparent to me as a foreigner in the greater use of brick than in most of Seoul, it implicitly casts a feeling of incongruity — the batting cage that is briefly seen in direct contrast to the temple on the mountain shown in the far distance — where these modern people with modern concerns (an iPhone is seen for the first time in Hong’s films) are almost trapped in the past.
That feeling of entrapment was my read of The Day He Arrives, and indeed the final close-up on Seong-jun as his picture is taken — the photographer is Go Hyun-jung, the Woman on the Beach in her last Hong appearance, and the scene generally feels like an elaboration of the Seo Young-hwa scene in Oki’s Movie — is probably the most haunting image that Hong has captured. This is especially accentuated by Hong’s long-anticipated return to black-and-white, his first on digital and only second after Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors eleven years before. The effect, helped by it being the second winter film in a row after three summer films, is one of isolation, where the space between people seems magnified by monochrome unless they make physical contact. Many moments of dislocation happen throughout, but my idea of how this entrapment is achieved has shifted, along with a greater dimensionality of structure that gradually but inexorably unfurls.
It’s very easy to get bogged down in the structure of The Day He Arrives, and for good reason, something greatly encouraged by the English title — I should note here that Kevin B. Lee’s video essay on this was a great early influence on my Hong thinking, and it’s never far from my mind when I watch it, especially his observations about disappearing snow and identical outfits. Whether this is the events of one day, five days, any amount in between, or even an imagined set of encounters that never actually happen is something that could be endlessly discussed, but it threatens to obscure how adroitly drawn and mystically reflected the character interactions become across the day(s), which I’ll get to in a bit.
Likely because it was my first Hong, I had a perhaps outsized association of him with Yoo Jun-sang; because he appeared in the first three Hongs I saw and led this one I assumed that he was one of Hong’s most consistent stars. In fact, this is the only Hong that Yoo leads solo, but while the film clearly takes place from his perspective, with reflective voiceover to match — the line where he resolves to return home “in a flash” weirdly reminds me of Belmondo in the car in Breathless — he fulfills a similar role to his other co-lead performance in Hahaha. After the first two days, which help introduce us to Seong-jun, his hiatus from directing, and his interactions with Kyung-jin — played by Kim Bo-kyung in, incredibly, her only Hong role despite her prominence here — the third and fourth days, which, depending on one’s definition, take up about 45 minutes of this 79 minute film, shift the focus at least somewhat to his friends and acquaintances, and he often becomes more akin to an observer of other characters’ elucidation.
This is perhaps Hong’s most purely ensemble film, both in terms of the quality of acting of each of the five main actors — I hadn’t recall the Jeonwonsa logo changing but the version here has five, I’ll have to keep track — and in how they’re utilized to create almost a shared mind that, of course, could simply be Seong-jun’s projection. But that doesn’t make it any less stunning when Joong-won — Kim Eui-sung, Hong’s very first lead in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, who did indeed take an extended hiatus from acting, though I doubt there was bad blood between him and Hong; he becomes a regular after this — after mostly remaining reticent in the second Novel bar scene, suddenly takes center stage and talks about the two extremes that, when put together, seem to sum up a whole person, even though both he and Seong-jun outside say that they are bad at reading people. The second Dajeong restaurant scene then recapitulates this idea even though Joong-won — last seen piled into a taxi — only appears during the third day. Even the first mention of queerness in Hong’s films, a light-hearted joke between Seong-jun and Young-ho, works so well because of the interplay of the two of them and Bo-ram; it’s also accompanied by an *extreme* zoom into close-up that Hong uses for the first time in a few scenes here.
The repetitions abound of course. The “bar called Novel” phrasing happens thrice, along with Young-ho’s amazing flourish of turning around, but even more telling is that the person who initiates the visit each time is different. It’s also notable that Seong-jun only plays the piano the first two times — a call-back to his piano playing in Hahaha, with his friend remarking that he shouldn’t try to play and his female companion saying that he’s really good — and that the shot of Ye-jeon’s back as she returns from her errand does the same. Likewise, she’s received with good humor the first two times, drinking with the customers, and is berated on the third.
Therefore, The Day He Arrives isn’t just a case of repetitions with slight variations throughout, but something truly protean in its approach to characters and how they’re emphasized. Seong-jun wishes in voiceover that Ye-jeon would join him outside, and Bo-ram steps out just after. In the same shot she remarks that Joong-won seems quiet and Seong-jun describes him as a big chatterbox; in the next shot he’s pontificating about extremes. Young-ho doesn’t pick up the phone in the first and last days, but is very close with Seong-jun in the second and third. I had totally forgotten about the scenes with just the two of them at the library — where Seong-jun’s description of him getting lost after following a girl home as a teenager very aptly describes the film’s narrative arc, he is always arriving but never quietly passes through Seoul — and at his apartment. However, he seems much more interested in trying to subtly court Bo-ram in the fourth; weirdly, the structure of the third and fourth day restaurant and bar interactions seem to be flipped (the reading people scene comes before the argument).
It’s definitely worth returning to the first day — assuming, of course, that these are laid out in an order meant to be understood as “chronological” — in seeing how it differs from the rest. The drinking session and sudden turn on the film students initially seems to come from an earlier Hong, but both the farcical extremity of Seong-jun running away from them and the pan back to them, holding as they wonder what they did wrong, is new territory, a greater attention to those surrounding the main character that also is enhanced by the later shot that holds on them in the fourth day. The scene with Kyung-jin, on the other hand, is one of the greatest Hongian breakdowns, especially since it progresses so quickly and cuts away as they hold each other, a totally ambiguous conclusion that lays the groundwork for the text messages that, against his wishes in this first day, she sends to him. If there is a narrative element that seems to float above the timeline of the film, it is these short texts, full of enough longing that they haunt the rest of the film. There’s also a measured pace to how Hong holds on the first shot of them, waiting for the electronic lock to finish before cutting away, that makes time stand still for just a moment.
Hong’s filming style generally doesn’t require many takes, which is why hearing once that the coincidences scene took far more takes than normal because Yoo had trouble remembering the more theoretical language greatly amused me. It first and foremost acts as a more speculative version of Jung-rae’s script idea in Woman in the Beach, while also calling back to, in its invocation of stringing together random events to constitute a reason, the impromptu Q&A in Oki’s Movie. Most importantly though, it emphasizes the almost invisible threads that run throughout the film, the search for reason (despite the innumerable obstacles in the way) that constantly eludes characters and viewer alike. Indeed, this applies to Hong’s working method too: it’s totally unknown to us (and at least to some extent to him) what influences him to write on the day of filming, and it produces these scenes that, in turn makes the viewer question what is the reason for these events.
The odd generosity of spirit afforded to every character in this, from the students to Joong-won, exists hand-in-hand with its ultimately despairing outlook. Kyung-jin asks for two cigarettes and Seong-jun gives her four; Seong-jun calls Ye-jeon an angel, a descriptor also used in Like You Know It All and Hahaha; Ye-jeon makes three promises to Seong-jun — to meet lots of nice people, to not get drunk, to keep a diary — and he exorts her (repeated from his parting with Kyung-jin) to be strong. Those moments, in their own comparatively gentle way, still nevertheless have the same uncanny repetition as the moment where Seong-jun seems to remember the first kiss with Ye-jeon while she does not; Go mentions that she uses her photographs as a diary; and of course the whole events of final day.
After those two longing looks, one from Ye-jeon before she goes back inside and one from Seong-jun before he walks away from Novel for the first time in daylight, The Day He Arrives resets one more time. He enacts the same string of coincidences that Bo-ram mentioned earlier, meeting a producer (regular Gi Ju-bong, hilariously wearing sunglasses during snowfall), a director — Baek Jong-hak, the male lead of The Power of Kangwon Province, and a music producer (edit: Baek Hyeon-jin, who reappears in Yourself and Yours). But he doesn’t get to complete the sequence, instead last seen standing in front of one of those brick walls that have surrounded him during this entire film. As perfect as this last scene is, I found myself even more drawn to the scene of all five main characters waiting for taxis after the third day — the first of the great Hongian trailers features this scene in color and played backgrounds. While cabs do eventually come for all but Seong-jun and Ye-jeon, they are all stuck waiting for so long, gazing into the distance as Seong-jun does so much in the film. Seong-jun is left outside and stranded in the cold, only accompanied by the circular piano theme that revolves forever in his and my head, never truly arriving to a conclusion. If Hong’s universe allows for infinite worlds possible, it’s perfect that his most ardently loved is the one that’s so compact and yet never ends.