The Day He Arrives was one of my favorite films of last year, though it hadn’t cemented that status until I had the special opportunity to produce a video essay as a bonus feature to the Cinema Guild DVD release of the film. If ever a movie warranted a video essay to help break it down, this is the film, because so much of what makes it so beguiling is bound to pass over one’s head, at least upon an initial viewing, as was my experience. Much of the film’s delights come from a sense of disorientation, as moments seem to recur again and again, though in slight variations from one to the next, leading one to continually ask, “Didn’t I see that before?” One can use the video essay in this instance as a kind of lepidoptery, netting all these butterfly moments and pinning them down side by side to make their contrasts clear.
Even in doing so, I had to watch and rewatch the film, which compounded the film’s structural premise of a man’s life playing like the same movie remade each day. This in itself may be Hong‘s joke answer to critics who accuse him of making the same movie over and over throughout his career. And this film may be Hong’s best answer to that critique, because it presents his gifts at their most extreme: a series of unassuming surfaces masking a rigorous structural audacity, with only the slightest of needling coincidences and quirks to cue us to the formal bravado orchestrated before our eyes.
Special thanks to Ryan Krivoshey at Cinema Guild for permitting the publication of this video essay on the occasion of The Day He Arrives being available on Fandor.
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“Random things happen for no reason in our lives. We choose a few and form a line of thought… Made by all these dots, which we call reason.”
The film is called The Day He Arrives. “He” refers to Yoo Seongjun, a film director making a brief visit to the city of Seoul.
The film’s English title refers to just one day, but the film covers a period of five days. Or does it?
If the story happens over five consecutive days, then why does each character wear the same clothes every day?
Why is the winter snowfall that blankets one scene nowhere to be found in the very next?
Why doesn’t this woman remember passionately making out with Seongjun the previous evening?
Why do they keep going to the same bar, but Seongjun’s voiceover makes it sound like each visit is his first?
The bar itself is called Novel, cueing us that this is all a fiction.
If what we’re watching is, as the saying goes, then maybe it’s best to approach it as such.
A movie is made of shots; this one has sixty-five shots covering seventy-seven minutes.
Here are the shots arranged in chronological order, with similar shots grouped together on the same axis.
The film, a chronicle of a man’s visit from out of town, begins with a series of unique, unrepeated shots in different locations, then winds a spiral midway through, circling around the same locations and scenes before spinning out of its temporary orbit.
In narrative terms, the repetition of scenarios allows us to mark the progression of relationships between the characters:
—Boram shifts from enthusiastically flirting with Seongjun to wallowing in self pity.
—Youngho shifts from being a steady, supportive friend to Boram, to lashing out at her, possibly due to repressed feelings of romantic frustration towards her.
—Seongjun shifts from discussing himself openly to withdrawing into a more observational role.
On a stylistic level, this much repetition calls attention to the significance of repetition itself.
These three shots are from different scenes of characters entering the same bar. They are carbon copies of each other, even in the gestures, of Youngho turning his back in the beginning, and patting a friend’s back at the end.
In these two scenes shot in the same restaurant, there’s an inversion of Seongjun’s position relative to his companions. This is juxtaposed by a patting gesture exchanged between his companions that happens at the exact same point in both scenes.
In Seongjun’s first of three random encounters with an actress, the actress is positioned facing away from us at a thirty-degree angle. In the second encounter she is positioned at a ninety-degree angle; we see her in side profile. In the third scene she approaches, directly facing towards us.
But for all the delight and meaning to be taken from these connections, the film explicitly warns us against doing so.
Serendipity, the catalyst of so many romantic comedies, is like a cheap aphrodisiac in this film.
The joke is that the trick was already explained to her, and she still fell for it. But the joke on us too. This film reveals its cinematic tricks, but we’re still drawn in. It speaks to the power of cinema itself, a construct that we willingly, sometimes helplessly believe.
On the outside, this film looks so realistic and relaxed, yet on the inside, it reveals overt structural patterns, strange irregularities and other metafictional effects.
On the sly, it winks at us. It even looks right at us.
And just as the women are attracted to expressions of opposites, so are we to this film. We are tempted and seduced to place importance upon its details, now matter how arbitrary they may actually be.
No one in the film embodies this conflict more than Seongjun: the same man who lucidly explains the illusory significance that lurks behind coincidence; the same man who shakes off two women’s expressions of serendipitous attraction.
And yet he can’t resist a bar hostess who looks just like an old girlfriend who still haunts him. Likewise, we know that she’s played by the same actress, but that only doubles our intrigue.
And as he pursues this lookalike substitute, she begins to act less like a real person and more like a fantasy. It’s as if he’s willed her into what he wants her to be. Is this even really happening, or is it a dream? The film makes no such distinction.
The reality of his desire is a mystery, even to himself, though some times he is wise enough to realize this.
And what are limits, but the patterns we adopt, consciously or not, to make the world suit our impulses?
Even when we know how much they won’t.
Kevin B. Lee< is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist. Follow him on Twitter.