Slight Return: Two Films By Hong Sang-Soo

by |
04/11/2012 4:00 AM |

Oki’s Movie and The Day He Arrives
Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Opening April 16 at the Maysles Cinema; April 20 at Lincoln Plaza

In Hong Sang-soo’s newest film, The Day He Arrives, Seong-jun (Yu Jun-sang), a movie director disappointed with his four films to date, who has recently taken a position at a provincial university, returns to Seoul to stay with a friend whose phone sends him straight to voicemail when he calls to say he’s in town. (The two mug playfully for another friend impressed with their closeness, but seem to know very little about each others’ lives.) Over the course of the “three or four days” of Seong-jun’s visit—he’s vague about the length of his stay, and it becomes hard to keep track of the wash of days—he wears the same clothes, drinks the same beer at the same bars, and sees the same people, even running into the same ex-colleague every day, and deflecting her same nervous giggles. Hong shoots the early South Korean winter in melancholy, slightly tinny black-and-white, scored to tinkling piano; his vision, especially as his camera zooms in to trap Seong-jun in interactions with casual acquaintances, is of social life as 
purgatorial loop.

Seong-jun seems to prolong this cycle of minor but accumulating humiliations and anxiety with his own ineffectual retreats and returns: he meets and pursues a lookalike of the ex-girlfriend on whose doorstep he boozily, moaningly threw himself on his first night back (and from whose renewed affections he lurched nobly away on the morning after). As in 2008’s Night and Day, and elsewhere, interactions with the doppelgangers of previous romantic failures suggest something almost comically arrested in the maturity of Hong’s men. There are other tantalizing near-rhymes throughout The Day He Arrives: in a bar called “Novel,” where each night ends up, Seong-jun and friends debate the essentially designed or arbitrary nature of coincidence.

Reflexive, or possibly reflexive conversations are one of many elements that recur across Hong’s dozen features to date. It’s not so much that Hong makes the same film over and over again, but that in each of his films, a middle-aged, a coddled failure at art and mentorship makes the same mistakes over and over again, with different women and coworkers and students, during long takes of touchy, meandering interaction over tables strewn with empty bottles, and across deft 
structural switchbacks.

Oki’s Movie, from 2010, finally receiving a week of projection in NYC, is perhaps Hong’s richest, most layered set of variations. In it, a love triangle between two film students and their professor is refracted across four one-reeler vignettes, the first and last being their respective student films; Hong rings changes on the sexual gaffes of those both young and presumably old enough to know better, and the pettiness of artistic and academic life, as they play out at group binges, on long hikes and at supremely awkward post-screening Q&As.

What’s fresh here, aside from the credibly open-ended reflections on how experience works its way into art, is the female perspective. The tellingly titled “Oki’s Movie” segment, which seems to be the female student’s film, cuts between two long walks, a few winters apart, that she takes with her older, professor lover and then with her classmate boyfriend. Her wistful chronology reveals a pliant, poignant empathy—Oki’s Movie maps the secret heart of all of Hong’s social fumbles, and finds a nostalgia that’s realistic, but no less stinging 
for it.

Oki’s Movie Courtesy Jeonwonsa Film Co,
The Day He Arrives Courtesy Cinema Guild