It’s saying something that The Day He Arrives—which follows a lapsed filmmaker as he wanders around his hometown, getting drunk and running into old friends, old flames, and other lost souls—is Hong Sang-soo’s most melancholy movie in some time. It perpetuates the Mandelbrot-set construction that’s been the guiding principle of his features over the last decade or so. Presumed to be autobiographical, confessional, and a self-denunciation, Hong’s work tends to foreground what auteurists will look for (i.e., anything that might lead back to the author), while he’s free to conduct countless experiments with form and narrative. His recent protagonists may suffer through various crises of faith, but the director himself shows no signs that he’s grown incurious of his own capabilities.
The geometry of human relationships is the main theme of The Day He Arrives. While other recent efforts, like Night and Day, Oki’s Movie, and Like You Know It All, have taken (productively) shaggier forms that indicate a certain degree of restlessness, The Day He Arrives finds its home in torpor, a bittersweet wallowing in familiarity and stasis. That’s not to say it’s without the writer-director’s peculiar sense of humor, as he weaves the honeycomb narrative with the expected number of coincidences, matched pairs, repetitions, and fortuitous encounters. But if we were forced to construct an analogy with Woody Allen, another self-obsessed auteur Hong is frequently compared with, The Day He Arrives would be Stardust Memories, with its monochrome palette and hallucinatory apparitions who’ve been culled from the well of the storyteller’s psyche.
Some of the usual suspects are missing: Whereas almost every Hong film has at least one scene in which a minor character or deuteragonist is provoked into upbraiding the hero for some slight, real or imaginary, there are no such spectacles here. (The scene that comes the closest is the film’s rare dip into broad comedy, a bad-drunk spaz-out that inevitably connects with the narrative hall of mirrors.) Seongjun (Yu Junsang), one of Hong’s many sad-sack movie directors, is rarely placed in the hot seat of accusatory ex-lovers or jilted acquaintances. In fact, he often becomes a supporting character in his own movie, which is chock-full of lookalikes and recurring conversational topics. The final shot, showing him pinned, butterfly-like, by looked-at-ness—accosted by a shutterbug acquaintance—is both alarming and appropriate.
A director who enjoys sketching diagrams, the benign spider web his characters inhabit tends to give their life structure, but also keeps them from wandering too far from the reservation. Hong is a noted satirist of male foolishness, and his characters discuss a peculiar emotional catnip for the ladies: One of them argues that if you tell a woman she’s “like x on the inside and y on the outside,” and she’ll fold like a house of cards. This being a comedy, it actually works on the female company who’d expressed doubt. This being a Hong Sang-soo film, this miracle of romantic psychological warfare is demonstrated twice.