The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Song Seon-mi - Kim Sang-joong - Kim Bo-kyung - Boram - Young-ho - Ye-jeon - Novel bar - Day 2

The Day He Arrives
2011, directed by Hong Sang-soo

Hong Sang-soo’s movies are often set in the bohemian world of independent cinema, with characters who are movie directors, actors, writers, and film students. He claims this is natural to him because that’s the world he knows best, but as always we should not take a director at his word. At least in The Day He Arrives there’s more to it, because the movie is about the thought processes of a filmmaker. The protagonist Yoo Seong-jun is a lapsed film director, and if we put the pieces together we should deduce that his films were not very good. More importantly, we can understand exactly why he and so many real-life filmmakers fail.

There are enough irregularities in The Day He Arrives to make the movie a challenge, inviting us to put its pieces together. For one thing there are numerous unnatural repetitions. Three times the characters visit the Novel bar, each time introduced in voice-over as if it’s something new. Seong-jun crosses paths thrice with the same actress, and the last time she happens to be scouting locations with the comical trio of film students Seong-jun had met on the first day. That may be a believable coincidence, but it’s beyond uncanny that Seong-jun’s ex-girlfriend Kyung-jin and bar manager Ye-jeon look exactly alike. The most telling repetition is in the finale when Seong-jun retraces his footsteps from the opening shot and calls his friend Young-ho as if he’s only just arriving again in Seoul.

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Park Soo-min - Yoo Jun-sang - actress - Seong-jun - Day 1

This last repetition frames the story, and it gives us a framework for making sense of all the strange coincidences and contradictions. The English-language title is also a good clue. Although the action is divided among five days, the only moments of reality we get to see are on the first day when Seong-jun arrives in Seoul. Everything else occurs in his creative filmmaker’s imagination while waiting for Young-ho, as he sketches a mental story of how his visit might unfold.

The first thing about Seong-jun’s imagined reality, if we go along with this interpretation, is how thoroughly he flatters himself. The actress in the street is excited to talk to him and doesn’t want to let him go. The three film students invite him to their table, tell him he has a great face, treat him like a celebrity, follow him to the night market, and imitate his gestures. Boram and Ye-jeon admire his piano playing, stare at him adoringly, and follow him outside the bar when he goes for a smoke. In all these imagined scenes however Seong-jun is not merely spinning a fantasy… he’s well aware that people don’t always worship him, and he knows he had left his ex and his first leading man Joong-won on bad terms – but in his imagination they too come around to his side. After airing out their differences Joong-won starts to look at him with respect, and after some initial resistance Kyung-jin makes love to him and spends the remaining days sending him longing text messages. Ye-jeon falls for him immediately. They kiss passionately, she keeps calling him “honey”, and after making love she’s amazed someone so “manly” is interested in her. It all strains credibility.

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Yoo Jun-sang - Ahn Jae-hong - Bae Yoo-ram - Jeong Ji-hyeong - Seong-jun - three film students - café - Day 1

The second thing about Seong-jun’s projections is that he’s always ready to reject people. After first calling Young-ho he tells himself, “I’m not going to meet anyone besides him.” Then he runs into the actress, and even with little to do that afternoon he’s obviously in a hurry to escape from her. He’s reluctant to join the three students in the café, and just when things are going well he freaks out over an imagined offence and bolts away. After reconciling with Kyung-jin he insists on cutting off communication with her, and he does the same near the end with Ye-jeon. He tells Boram he came to Seoul just to meet Young-ho and “doesn’t need to see other people.”

If all of the encounters and conversations that fill the movie – everything between Seong-jun’s two phone calls to Young-ho – take place in his imagination, they give us a clue to the kind of film he would make. We’ve seen his vanity and his disinterest in the people around him, and he also reveals a few of his creative short-cuts. At the Novel bar on Day 3 he talks about the ubiquity of coincidence in life: “Random things happen for no reason in our lives. We choose a few and form a line of thought… made by all these dots, which we call a reason.” He admits that people tend to find meaning in coincidence when there really isn’t any, and yet the story he puts together – if that’s what’s happening between the two phone calls – is full of coincidences. If that’s how his imagination works, and if that’s how he makes movies, then it’s a convenient way to make a film seem deeper than it actually is.

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Song Seon-mi - Yoo Jun-sang - Boram - Seong-jun - Novel bar - Day 3

Right after the conversation about coincidences, Joong-won tells Ye-jeon and Young-ho his theory that women always believe it when they’re described with two opposing extremes. He demonstrates this on Ye-jeon: “You seem very practical and proper on the outside, but you’re extremely emotional on the inside,” and she falls for it all the way, as if it weren’t a totally transparent manipulation. The idea comes from the mouth of another character (Seong-jun is outside with Boram), but that hardly matters if it’s part of Seong-jun’s imagination. The next day he and Young-ho reiterate the same theory at the restaurant, and Boram again confirms it, amazed at how well Seong-jun’s description fits her. While this method of cold reading might make a good party trick, it reveals a simplistic conception of personality. If that’s how Seong-jun draws the characters in his movies, it’s awfully formulaic.

Finally, after Seong-jun has laid bare his anti-social personality and his poverty of imagination via his imagined encounters over the following days, The Day He Arrives brings us back where it started. Seong-jun comes down the same sidewalk where we first saw him. This time however he is not yet holding his phone. At the intersection he turns right instead of crossing the street to the left, and when he calls Young-ho this time, instead of finding Young-ho’s phone turned off, Young-ho answers to say he doesn’t have time to meet just now. Apparently we are seeing a different version of Day One, i.e. what happens if only Seong-jun dials his friend a few seconds later. The idea of alternate directions is suggested in the opening image, a road sign near the same intersection in the Bukchon neighborhood with arrows pointing in three directions, and it’s further indicated in the movie’s Korean title In the Direction of Bukchon. Here the viewer must make a choice. Are the last seven minutes merely a different possible outcome? Or do they shed insight on the story we’ve been given so far, showing the reality behind the fantasy? Everything that follows indicates the latter.

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Kim Sang-joong - Park Soo-min - Yoo Jun-sang - Young-ho - actress - Seong-jun - Day 4

The remaining incidents nearly duplicate the anecdote Boram told on Day Three about meeting a director, a producer, a musician, and a student of hers all within twenty minutes. In quick succession, Seong-jun runs into a couple of guys shooting a film, an older man who talks about maybe working together again, a film musician, and a young woman who claims to be a fan of his films. If we take this version of Day One as reality, we can see how it inspires Boram’s anecdote, which is Seong-jun’s creation after all.

What’s so striking about the last seven minutes, and what makes them more believable than everything before, is that the storytelling is totally stripped of Seong-jun’s vanity. If Young-ho’s phone is turned off, Seong-jun can make any excuse he likes to keep inflating himself; but if Young-ho has no time for him it’s a blow to his pride. His four encounters on the street are equally disappointing. The two filmmakers are indifferent to him, including the one who Seong-jun recalls “used to be nice to me.” The older man will only engage in small talk and seems to be trying politely to get rid of him. The musician is polite but only talks about himself. Finally, even the young woman who’s a fan of Seong-jun’s films has her own agenda – she wants to take a photograph of him for her project.

True to his character, Seong-jun initially rejects the woman, saying he doesn’t like having his picture taken. What follows is a rather momentous turning point. Now that he’s tasted rejection himself, he suddenly changes his mind and accepts her proposition. He poses for her, and his stunned expression hints at a new self-awareness, the terrible realization that by rejecting everyone he has been missing out on life. The last shot is about as close as the movie gets to a close-up, and the effect is like the sole close-up of Charlie Chaplin that concludes City Lights, conveying a sense of dawning realization.

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Yoo Jun-sang - Seong-jun - photograph - posing - last shot - snow - close-up - Day 1 redux

Seong-jun’s greatest fault, in life and presumably in his filmmaking, is shutting out life as it comes to him. A movie needs to let its characters breathe, treating them as human beings rather than means to an end or projections of the author’s self-interest. As Seong-jun looks through the falling snow at the woman’s camera, it’s encouraging to suppose that he’s finally opening himself to the abundant life around him, and that he has begun to see the way to making better movies.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Framed story with an unreliable self-promoting narrator; tale of self-deception; invitation for audience to diagnose a particular fault in the protagonist

City Lights – Only close-up comes at the end as a sign of revelation

Diary of a Country Priest – Portrait of an anti-social character who repeatedly shuts life out

Pickpocket – Character who comes to realize he’s been shutting people out of his life

L’avventura – Finding wonder in the outwardly disappointing nature of reality

Cléo from 5 to 7 – Turning point when the protagonist finally acts selflessly and sheds vanity

The Exterminating Angel – Repetition reveals the underlying reality of a situation


The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - opening titles

0:00:00 – Opening titles (red screen)

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - opening shot - directional sign - Constitutional Court intersection - Bukchon - Seoul - Day 1

0:01:16 – Day 1 (Seong-jun arrives in Seoul)

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Kim Bo-kyung - Yoo Jun-sang - Kyung-jin - Seong-jun - Day 2

0:14:38 – Day 2 (Morning in Kyung-jin’s apartment)

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Kim Sang-joong - Yoo Jun-sang - Young-ho - Seong-jun - Jeongdok Public Library - Day 3

0:27:00 – Day 3 (Young-ho and Seong-jun drink coffee outside the Jeongdok Public Library)

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Kim Sang-joong - Song Seon-mi - Kim Eui-sung - Yoo Jun-sang - Kim Bo-kyung - Young-ho - Boram - Joong-won - Seong-jun - Ye-jeon - waiting for taxi - Day 4

0:47:27 – Day 4 (The five friends wait for a taxi after staying up all night)

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Yoo Jun-sang - Kim Bo-kyung - Seong-jun - Ye-jeon - Day 5

1:08:56 – Day 5 (Morning at Ye-jeon’s place)

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - Yoo Jun-sang - Seong-jun - Constitutional Court intersection - Bukchon - Day 1 redux

1:11:17 – Day 1 again (Seong-jun retraces his first footsteps)

The Day He Arrives - 북촌방향 - Hong Sang-soo - end credits

1:17:59 – End credits (light blue screen) [film ends at 1:18:51]