Hong’s sex scenes were always awkward and unsexy, from the humor of the foot fetish scene in The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well, to the disappointing bodies failing to perform in Tale of Cinema. As Kyung Hyun Kim notes in Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era, (without citing the 2002 essay I linked above, but I’m not bitter, no), “Hong’s work is never a good aphrodisiac” (149). In spite of this unsexy sex, Kim also reminds us that “Hong’s blunt treatment of sexuality has added to his growing reputation of being obsessed with sex” (149). Yet Hong’s obsession to show sex on screen stopped after Woman Is the Future of Man. We might see characters make-out, and sometimes in bed, but we don’t see them naked anymore. The sex between characters is now more alluded to than exposed.
Nowhere is this shift more apparent than in The Day He Arrives. When Seong-jun returns to Kyung-jin’s apartment after a two year absence, he quickly becomes a sobbing wreck claiming he can’t live without her. (There’s a moment in the film where the subtitles just don’t do justice to the way Seong-jun echoes ‘You, You, You!!!’ with such desperation towards Kyung-jin.) After he says ‘I Love You, Kyung-jin’, we cut to scene of just their feet as Seong-jun leaves the apartment. No sex, just feet, although Kyung-jin’s are naked. It is here where Seong-jun is at his most eloquent, when he is trying to savor the moment of beauty they shared by severing off the relationship completely. Of course, part of the humor is how insincere this desire to break-up is because Kyung-jin seeks to confirm that Seong-jun’s number hasn’t changed and Seong-jun is happy to verify this information for her.
Later, Seong-jun repeats a similar pattern with Yeo-jeon. (This is a Hong film, after all, and that means repeat, rinse, repeat.) When he conveys his feelings to Yeo-jeon, this time he isn’t crying but he appears delighted. Yet soon he will negotiate with Yeo-jeon to sever this relationship as well at its most beautiful, this time refusing to give her his number. This need to hold on to happiness by ending the relationship so that the profane of the mundane of future days together doesn’t ruin the sacred moment of consummation of one’s ‘love’ is not unique to Hong. I recently watched Last Blossom (Choo Chang-min, 2011) on DVD and one of the two plots within the film makes a similar argument that a beautiful relationship should end before the pain of loss arises. But Hong handles this break-it-off-before-it-breaks in a unique way, a constant repetition of repeat, cleanse, repeat. And a quick routine at that, not even letting the relationship lather up before the cleansing rinse.
Anyone who has pursued a relationship to realize that they should end it swiftly, (but most likely, not nearly as fast as Seong-jun does here), can perhaps relate a little with what is on display in Hong’s films. But most of us performed our variation because we realized the relationship wasn’t right eventually, then we might doubt ourselves, return for a re-think, and then realize, we were really right the first time. But Hong’s circular display is at its core about characters who really think love is ruined by holding on to that someone. It will never be more beautiful beyond that initial moment of blissful consummation.
Yet, many of us eventually learn, (that is, those of us who are lucky enough to learn, because some of us don’t have the wealth of opportunities at relationships as Hong’s men do), that there is a different but equally beautiful aspect of maintaining the relationship over the long term with someone we love. Sure, you might not have the butterflies you had during that first section of courtship, but as you build a ‘home’, (in the case of the average San Franciscan, an apartment), you develop a history as you cultivate a future, and there is a different kind of joy in the reassurance of your loved one’s presence in your every day life. This is what makes the daily activities not boring, but pleasurable. This mundanity is not profane, but sacred. The moments of excitement Hong’s men keep repeating might be what you sacrifice when you commit to someone you love, but it’s that very commitment that keeps you going in a different routine, one that you will eventually find more fulfilling than the elusive desire Hong’s men pursue.
In watching The Day He Arrives, now for the seventh time but the sixth time in a row, I still believe what I wrote in my chapter on The Power of Kangwon Province for The Cinema of Japan and Korea. (So how appropriate that the two actors from that film, Baek Jong-hak and Chun Jae-hyun, make an appearance at the end of The Day He Arrives.) Hong’s less than exemplary characters may not resemble us, but they can pose challenges to us to do better the next time around someone we might love. His characters might not learn this, but that doesn’t say we can’t.