A young Korean filmmaker meets old friends, makes new ones, briefly reunites with an ex, and goes through many, many bottles of soju. The outline could apply to most of the self-effacing, increasingly inward-looking comedies written and directed by Hong Sang-soo, and it certainly describes “The Day He Arrives,” an agreeably meandering exercise that brings some clever French New Wave fillips and structural repetitions to Hong’s characteristically boozy party. Rougher but more approachable than his previous “Oki’s Movie,” “Day” should arrive at the helmer’s usual fests but may be deemed too slight for theatrical play.
A year after “Hahaha” won the Un Certain Regard prize (“Oki’s Movie” bowed at fall fests in the interim), Hong has returned to the Cannes sidebar with another scruffy, unflattering portrait of a frustrated would-be artist. Gently charming and mildly annoying in equal measure, pic enlivens the formula somewhat through its unusual play with time, telling a slender story that seems to repeat itself at least twice, with slight variations, over the course of its 78 minutes.
A director who hasn’t made one of his critically acclaimed, little-seen films in a while, handsome Yoo Seong-jun (Yu Jun-sang) arrives in a Seoul to meet a friend, and along the way runs into an old actress acquaintance of his. Stood up by his pal, Seong-jun falls in with a group of film students who haven’t seen any of his movies, but take him out for drinks anyway. Their hangout session ends badly, if amusingly, and a near-tears Seong-jun finds himself knocking on the door of Kyung-jin (Kim Bok-yung), the woman he stopped dating a year ago, initiating one of Hong’s hilarious patented scenes of male misbehavior at its most pathetic and self-serving.
Another day (or so it seems), Seong-jun again runs into the actress, but this time he succeeds in meeting up with his friend, film critic Young-ho (Kim Sang-joong), who takes him out for drinks along with attractive cinema-studies professor Boram (Song Sun-mi). The three make their way to a bar owned by Yejeon, whom Seong-jun notices bears a striking resemblance to his ex (indeed, Kim Bok-yung plays both roles). Seong-jun plays the piano for his friends, and the night ends with a snowfall and an unexpected kiss.
Yet another day follows more or less the same pattern, and soon it’s unclear whether the film has been presenting the events of three separate days, or is merely rebooting and replaying the events of a single one. (The name of the bar Seong-jun and his friends keep returning to is called Novel, a joke that becomes funnier each time it’s repeated.) Hong’s playful approach could well be an impish rejoinder to those critics who have accused him of solipsistically making the same film over and over again. Yet it also captures a sense of generational inertia, of drifting idly through life, that audiences in their 20s and 30s may recognize with a wince.
Scenes that seem to echo one another display often uncomfortable insight into the habitually irritating behaviors people are quick to condemn in others and just as quick to overlook in themselves. There may be nothing more romantic than a first kiss, but “The Day He Arrives” demonstrates how awkward the second one can be, especially if neither party can remember if there’s been a first one.
Kim Hyoung-koo’s black-and-white lensing is a crucial component of the film’s New Wave feel, apart from Hong’s typically clunky zooms; Jeong Yong-jin’s music provides spare connective tissue. Tech credits are rough, and most of the film’s budget seems to have been spent on soju.