Hong Sang-soo’s second film of 2023 — and 30th overall in a 27-year career — premieres just a few short months after in water at Berlinale. That film found Hong investigating the nature and process of making cinema, both in general and in his own idiosyncratic manner. It was a bit of an experiment, of course, being filmed, to varying degrees, out-of-focus — and ending on a note of unsettling ambiguity, as a director walks into the ocean (on camera, naturally) like James Mason in A Star Is Born. That ending essentially inverts the one from The Novelist’s Film, a 2021 Hong festival entrant, which concludes with what appears to be a moment of pure love between a director and his star, Kim Min-hee (also Hong’s key collaborator for most of the last decade). Now, In Our Day continues Hong’s meditations on art, albeit with neither the potentially alienating effects of in water nor the direct and triumphant beauty of The Novelist’s Film. Instead, we find Hong in more conventional territory, with a split narrative about younger people asking older artists for advice, and not quite getting answers they find helpful.
The first of the film’s narratives stars Kim as an actress who has returned to Korea after some time abroad and is staying with an old friend (a designer, or model, perhaps — or just someone with an impressive collection of shoes). After spending some quality time with the friend’s big fluffy cat named “Us” (later to be the subject of what is now this reviewer’s single favorite Hong zoom shot ever), Kim is visited by her younger cousin, who wants to venture into acting and solicits her for advice. Kim explains that acting, perhaps paradoxically, is about truth, personal inner truth — tapping into yourself with complete honesty and channeling that truth into performance. The cousin says she understands… but one has their doubts.
The second narrative stars Gi Jubong (Hotel by the River, Introduction) as a renowned poet. A young film student is making a film about him, and he laments to her that he can no longer drink or smoke due to health concerns (much like Hong himself). They’re visited by a young man who, like Kim’s cousin, wants to go into acting. He wants the poet’s advice, though it’s not entirely clear why (we may surmise that it has something to do with the pretty documentarian, though she doesn’t seem to know who he is). The young man asks the old one vague questions (what is love, why make art, what is it all for, etc.) and gets truthful but perhaps poorly comprehended answers. The scene is reminiscent of the third film-within-a-film in Hong’s 2010 masterpiece, Oki’s Movie, in which two film students ask their professor a variety of questions about life and art and take in his pithy, reasonably profound responses. One of the poet’s answers is essentially the same as one the professor in that film gave: when asked why he chose to pursue poetry, the poet explains that he doesn’t know, and more to the point, that he doesn’t know why he does anything; in Oki’s Movie, the professor claims “In life. . . of all the important things I do, there’s none I know the reason for. I don’t think there is.” This, in turn, echoes Hong’s recent comments at a New York retrospective of his work, as reported in The New Yorker: “The most precious thing in life is always something that is given to me. If I look back on my life, the most wonderful things were always given to me, free or unexpectedly. Never in life did I get something wonderful by trying to get it or with a strong intention.” Instead, as Hong has done in several films recently, the poet asserts a kind of existentialism: what is important is living in the moment, in truly seeing and experiencing what is in front of your face.
So if we combine ideas central to these two stories, we might have something like Hong and Kim’s theory of art: radical personal honesty and emotional truth, combined with an openness to any possible experience of the world and of chance. These theories are put to the test in the second half of the film. The beloved cat Us disappears and his owner is distraught, crying and screaming in anguish. After walking the streets looking for him, she comes home and collapses in a heap on the floor, as Kim calmly tries to get her to relax and focus on the next step of the search. Song Sunmi’s performance, to this point in tune with Hong’s usual register of relaxed naturalism, becomes so demonstrative, the performance of her emotion so extreme (though essentially just lying still), that it pushes the bounds of believability. Is this the honesty Kim advised? Or is the scene effective despite the overplaying, belying Kim’s theory of acting? Similarly, the poet is faced with a choice. The young man’s questioning gives him a strong urge to drink (a point made by a quite funny intertitle; all the scenes are preceded by such titles, some of which describe what is to come, some of which explain inner thoughts that otherwise are too subtly expressed to be picked up on), and despite the documentarian’s concerns, the man goes out and gets some soju. Several bottles later, the poet introduces Rock-Paper-Scissors to the group as a drinking game, and proceeds to outdrink both kids. Those two eventually leave together, in a scene that could have come from any number of earlier Hong films (Oki’s Movie, certainly). But we, the audience — and by extension, Hong, who’s much older now than when those films were made — stay with the poet, who sets up on his balcony, armed with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, a pack of cigarettes, and what looks like a box of donuts or some other kind of heart-unhealthy snack. Because when your philosophy of life is built around the pleasures of the moment, on living each day in the moment in order to experience fully what it means to be alive, it’s really hard to convince yourself to quit smoking.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.5.