Films with a filmmaker protagonist tend to be exercises in self-indulgence waiting to happen. That’s anything but the case with “The Day He Arrives.” Seong-jun (Yu Jun-Sang) has made four films. They were enough of a success that when he’s sitting by himself in a restaurant, three film students recognize him. That success is far enough in the past that he’s now reduced to teaching film at a provincial university, as he somewhat sheepishly explains to pretty much everyone he encounters, and there aren’t exactly any directing projects in the offing. Even if he doesn’t admit it to himself or others, he’s a man at loose ends. The verb in the title of “The Day He Arrives” doesn’t refer so much to a traveler reaching a destination as to a man finding himself — or hoping to.
Seong-jun has come to Seoul for a few days to visit a friend (Kim Sang-joong). They talk, they smoke, they drink, and spend time with other people they know. Before seeing his friend, Seong-jun visits an old flame. They spend the night together. The next evening, the woman who runs the bar where he and his friends are drinking catches his eye. Well she should: The same actress, Kim Bo-kyung, plays both her and the old girlfriend.
This bit of narrative trickiness is easily overlooked, since Hong Sang-soo (who also wrote the script) directs with such understated simplicity. He’s equally fond of long takes and small gestures. The clink of classes, the rustle of a plastic grocery bag, the exhalation of cigarette smoke can have the heft of great passion or violent acts. (Not that there isn’t great passion here, it’s just that it’s usually suppressed.) The crispness of the film’s digital black-and-white photography further enhances a sense of quotidian realism, as does the film’s unhurried pacing.
Nothing really eventful happens in “The Day He Arrives.” Yes, there are those two women, one old, one new, in Seong-jun’s life. But Hong’s bit of double casting leads us to think the eventfulness is in Seong-jun’s head — as does the fact that the new woman professes not to remember her first encounter with the director. Whether they happened or not hardly matters, though, since this oddly engrossing film conveys so well the least-uneventful thing of all, in Seong-jun’s existence or anyone else’s. That would be daily life itself.