Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Unbearable Awkwardness of Being a Korean Filmmaker: Watching Hong Sang-soo's "The Day He Arrives" at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival

Well, I made my way down to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival tonight.  I’d never been to a film festival before, but I figured, “Hey, I’m a film bloggist now, this is the sort of thing I should be doing.” Furthermore, they were showing the new (or relatively new; he really pumps them out) Hong Sang-soo movie, The Day He Arrives, and who knows if or when that will ever get a DVD release in the US, so this looked like it could be my only opportunity to see it.

Prior to this, I had seen four other Hong Sang-soo movies (from least favorite to favorite): The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (the original Korean title of which is just Oh! Soo-jung!), Woman is the Future of Man, Woman on the Beach, and Night and Day.  All of these movies—and from what I’ve heard, all the other movies in Hong’s oeuvre—have the same basic premise: an artist (usually a filmmaker) goes to a beach/bar/hotel to reunite with old friends.  They drink heavily, and then they start airing old resentments and soon everyone is raging and weeping.  They’re wonderful fun.
The Day He Arrives follows the same formula.  Director Yoo Sung-joon has returned to Seoul to visit his friend Young-ho.  They both really want to like each other, but the awkwardness between them is palpable (the awkwardness between Sung-joon and pretty much everyone is palpable).  They repeatedly go to a bar (called the “Novel”) with Young-ho’s colleague/maybe girlfriend, Bo-ram, and they all drink, and they discuss Sung-joon’s troubled love life, and they pontificate, and they all puff each other up.  The film is structured around these visits to the Novel, which always play out the same way.
At the beginning of the movie, Sung-joon looks up an old girlfriend, arriving unannounced at her apartment.  They both get themselves emotionally worked up, he weeps, she weeps, they roll around in bed (they probably have sex, but it isn’t made clear).  They agree not to see each other again, but she insists on texting him from time to time, and will send him emotionally troubling texts throughout the rest of the evening.
If someone thinks I’ve just delivered “spoilers,” let me assure you, I haven’t.  First, as I’ve said before, all Hong movies basically have the same plot, and there is usually nothing unexpected in that plot.  Second, even within that plot, there’s not much in the way of “suspense.” Your experience won’t be tarnished by knowing in advance that Sung-joon will cry when he sees his ex-girlfriend.  Or maybe it will be.  These are beautiful movies.  I feel like they’re hermetically sealed little slices of reality, unchanging and perfect now that they’ve been filmed (perhaps this is the case, to varying degrees, with all movies, or at least good ones).  And if this is the case, then the unfolding of a movie’s plot, however “predictable” or lacking in suspense, has an element of mystery to it, and that mystery is part of the experience of watching the movie.  I’m not sure.  I’ll be more cautious about “spoilers” in the future, once I’ve become more certain as to what constitutes them.
I saw this movie at the St. Anthony and Main theater.  About midway through, a DVD menu suddenly displayed itself on the right side of the screen, taking up about a third of it.  I had never had this experience at a movie theater before.  I guess I sort of assumed that movies were generally still projected from reels of film.  How naïve of me.  Especially with a movie like this, which isn’t going to have a wide release in the United States; of course they’re not sending reels of film from festival to festival.  They have it on a DVD and they pop it into their projector and that’s how they play it.
It was an exercise in group psychology to see how this situation was going to resolve itself.  Should someone get up and go tell “them” (whoever was projecting it) that there was a problem?  Would this problem just fix itself? If someone does need to get up, who should it be? Not me, certainly, I’m still watching the movie, I refuse to miss any part of it, even though a third of the screen is obscured (or partially obscured, you could still make out a bit of what was happening behind the DVD menu, which was semi-transparent).  Eventually, the guy closest to the door got up, and I’m assuming he took action.  Shortly thereafter, the movie was stopped entirely and the screen went black (also the first time I’ve ever experienced this at a theater).  But within a minute or so, the movie was back up and running again, at the point where it had left off, purged of the DVD menu.
I’d don’t want to denigrate the fine people at St. Anthony and Main; these things happen.  It was generally a quite positive experience, and I was grateful for the opportunity to get to see a Hong movie in a theater.  It was also nice that I was apparently one of the few people who wished to do so, because there were very few people in the theater and so my friend and I were able to choose good seats, away from other people, and we didn’t have to deal with those insufferable late-comers who fuck up your perfect seat selection by sitting directly in front of you with their poofy heads of hair, right when the movie’s about to start and it’s too late to change seats.  They know who they are.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival continues through May 3rd, and I hope to make my way out there at least one more time this season.  For more information on the festival, you can visit their website at:

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