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The Day He Arrives is a minor intellectual exercise in film. It recalls the European cinema of the 1960s where French new wavers were making films about film, with games and big ideas embedded in the heady dialogue.

I’m not enough of an academic to say whether The Day He Arrives is as deep as Last Year at Marienbad, but I like the pattern and playfulness of it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the academics who venerate the inscrutable movies of the sixties like it too.

Seongjoon (right) returns home
Seongjoon (right) returns home

A film director, Seongjoon (Yu Junsang), returns to his home town during a dry spell in his career. He is invited to drink with four film students. He runs into an old classmate who is thinking about getting into acting. He meets some old friends at a bar, then meets them there again, and again. Writer/director Hong Sangsoo’s script presents Seongjoon as a man everyone wants a piece of and whom nobody has anything to offer.

That’s not quite true. Beautiful women have something to offer, as do his old friend Youngho (Kim Sangjung), and their friend Han who acted in one of Seongjoon’s films. Seongjoon is a nice enough guy if you’ve just met, but get to know him and his selfishness shows through. Lord help you if you are a woman attracted to his charm; he’s a real asshole when it comes to sex.

We come to realize that Seongjoon weighs his natural human reactions against the power-play calculations made by the famous and powerful. He attracts a new girlfriend, and in bed tells her he loves her and wants to make her happy. But the next morning he refuses to give her his number and tells her that they must never meet again. But later he does give his number to someone whom he runs into on the street who produces music for movies and thus might be useful.

The most painful of these calculated interactions one of the last in the film. He runs into someone he has worked with before. His acquaintance tries to be polite and say things are fine, but honesty forces him to say things like “I’m taking it slow.” Here’s someone who wasn’t good at playing those social games, you think, and it might cost him his life. But Seongjoon refuses to see anything so unpleasant. He presses his friend to say that things are fine, which gets him a “... sure” before their awkward parting.

The film ends perfectly with Seongjoon’s expression of total fear as a fan is taking his picture. It works so well because the movie has been steadily and subtly undercutting his power and prestige. By the end he realizes just how hollow he really is.

Shot competently in black and white, The Day He Arrives is a formal movie. It establishes a pattern, then repeats with variations. It plays verbal and visual games with the audience. Places, people, and dialogue repeat — not literally as in Groundhog Day, but formally, and slightly unnaturally, so that it feels like the filmmaker is fighting his characters for control of their lives.

You could say that in The Day He Arrives, the filmmaker wins the game played against the protagonist. Then you realize The Day He Arrives may be autobiographical, in which case the loser is the filmmaker. Maybe we should ask the academics what they think.