Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Previewing 2012: The Day He Arrives

The Day He Arrives (Book chon bang hyang, 2011), leading Korean art-film auteur Hong Sang-soo's twelfth feature in sixteen years, re-imagines the writer-director's conspicuously closed corpus across a series of chance street meetings, barroom visits and one-night stands, all of which feature the film's filmmaker lead Yoo (Jun-Sang Yu). Though all of the above ostensibly inscribe new, sequentially ordered events, Hong treats each as essentially interchangeable with snatches of dialogue rephrased, gestures transferred from character to character and a limited number of players at the director's disposal; that is, with each repetition, Hong subtly gives the impression of replaying the same scene, following a small number of motival modifications, even as the narrative moves classically across Yoo's three day visit to Seoul. It also emphasizes the synthetic nature of the scenario, despite its naturalistic valance. In thus retaining a more traditional storytelling structure, despite the film's Groundhog Day (1993) intimations, the medium's most direct heir to Piet Mondrian has produced a work that seeks to disclose the truth that every day and especially every night brings more of the same for his surrogate protagonist. Of course, thanks to both this latter emphasis on mundane repetition and also The Day He Arrive's approach to narrative form, Hong's latest emerges as one of the most thoroughly modernist works of the director's career.

As an expression of the director's aesthetic, The Day He Arrives confirms Hong's increasing comfort with the zoom-lensing that he first inaugurated in his transitional Tale of Cinema (2005), replacing the prevailing, static deadpan style of his masterpiece, The Power of Kangwon Province (1998). With the filmmaker's latest, Hong has shown his ever greater aptitude for slight reframings amid his long-take stagings, for shifting the spectators' attention within his multi-figural mise-en-scène: during the second of the bar passages, to take an especially superlative example, the discomfort of his centered, silent observer Young-ho (Sang Jung Kim) comes to take unexpected precedent over the sequence's arguing pair, thanks to Hong's incrementally short zoom forward into the scene's three-person cluster. In this passage, as in much of The Day He Arrives, Hong no longer treats the strategy as self-conscious ornamentation or punctuation (as has often been true from his 2005 feature onward), but instead as a replacement for analytic editing procedures. In so doing, Hong continues to develop a personal idiom that distinguishes the director's modernism from those variants of his East Asian counterparts.

Visually, Hong has produced once of his richest works in the same post-2005 period, registering the film's wintery, Christmas-season landscapes in an elegant 16:9 black-and-white (with the lighter frosty tones proving especially prominent). In one of the more memorable of the director's recent set-ups, Hong stages his group at daybreak, huddled on the edge of a busy Seoul street as they wait for a car in the wet South Korean snow. In moments like this, where the specificity of the film's Christmas season and its character geometry are especially in evidence, Hong directly recalls Eric Rohmer's no less verbose signature masterpiece My Night at Maud's (1969). Though The Day He Arrives might not exactly occupy the same position in Hong's corpus as it does for the no less and Mondrianesque corpus of the French master, it does represent significant work by any measure.

Cinema Guild will release The Day He Arrives in North America, with the film scheduled to open in New York in April 2012.

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