In Our Day Review: Hong Sang-soo Finds Beauty and Rapture in the Realm of the Mundane

For Hong, In Our Day is a gesture toward recognizing the beautiful, awful, and uncanny.

In Our Day
Photo: Cinema Guild

Hong Sang-soo’s In Our Day is composed of two alternating strands, both pivoting on conversations between artists and their acolytes. The film has no plot in the conventional sense, even by Hong’s spare standards, and the audacious structural gamesmanship of films like Walk Up has been abandoned. In Our Day is meant to feel tossed-off, though Hong’s braiding of scenes—by echoes, symbols, and subjects—is characteristically deliberate.

The uninitiated may find In Our Day baffling or uneventful, as inscrutability is a risk that Hong is willing to run for his art, but for the admirer the familiarity of Hong’s subjects and patterns is pleasing and reflective of a working ethos so obsessive that it’s become a life philosophy. Hong keeps chipping away at the mandates of commercial narrative cinema, fashioning a radical cinema aesthetic that abounds in the fleeting observational textures of poetry or journals.

Sangwon (Kim Min-hee) is a retired film actress staying with a friend, Jung-soo (Song Sunmi), for a spell. Opening text casts a pall over the situation before we’ve even met the characters, suggesting that they wonder whether they’re “there” for one another. Jung-soo is composed and elegant, working from home while starting the morning off with a glass of wine—a detail, suggestive of frustration or addiction, that the alcohol-obsessed Hong allows to hang in the air. Meanwhile, Sangwon is a study in someone having a crisis of motivation, plopping down at Jung-soo’s dining room table half-asleep and slumped in on herself. Which is to say that we’re given a lot in a matter of seconds. Such a rapid motherlode of detail is characteristic of Hong, who can seemingly imbue any mundane bit of business with a rueful, Chekhovian undertow.

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It takes Hong a while to reveal that Sangwon is an actress, which becomes pertinent when her cousin, Jisoo (Park Misoo), who has aspirations of acting, comes for a visit. Before that revelation, there are extended scenes of Sangwon playing with Jung-soo’s beautiful fat cat, called Us, and giving it one treat after another. Hong shows the women baby-talking to the cat, pursuing it, and talking of it. Such details are at the heart of why Hong produces films such as In Our Day, and, as he hollows more and more plot apparatus out of his work, they become more prominent. Us is accorded several scenes, and he even merits a significant subplot after he disappears, leading to Jisoo crumbling onto her hallway floor weeping. These sorts of moments are our lives, Hong seems to be saying, so why can’t they be our movies as well?

This ethos becomes explicit with Sangwon’s crisis of professional conscience. She’s tired of uttering lines written by others, finding the practice absurd and undignified. Like Hong, she seeks to remove the “veils” that obscure meaningful artistry, namely the fear and timidity that drive artists to seek solace in clichés. Given Hong’s penchant for sampling from the lives of his friends, lovers, and collaborators for his films, you may wonder if Kim is speaking for herself. Her posture during this confession is remarkable: Sangwon’s words are ferocious and confident, while her body is slouched over itself yet again, as if weighed down by her roiling emotions.

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That confessional sequence is capped off with a simple yet poignant camera flourish. Sangwon vents to Jisoo about her methodology while they stand out on what appears to be a cramped porch. The shot is shown, though, to be obscuring the dimensions of the space, as the camera zooms back once the conversation is over to reveal an expanse much larger than we assumed. Hong springs a practical metaphor for the struggle to redefine the strictures we place on our lives, and In Our Day abounds in such subtly expressive formal flexing.

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In Our Day’s other half concerns an aging poet, Uiji (Ki Joo-bong), who as on-screen text tells us has become popular with younger readers late in life. Uiji seems to have pushed through the desolation with which Sangwon grapples, his anguish burning away to allow for life’s everyday pleasures. Forbidden to drink or smoke anymore due to heart issues, abstinences that he will inevitably abandon, Uiji answers the questions of an admirer, Jaewon (Ha Seong-guk), who seeks pat life lessons. After all, young people tend to be results oriented, while those in Uiji’s position, and by extension Hong’s, understand grandeur to reside in the work itself.

As in the strand with Sangwon, there are wandering interludes here that embody nothing more or less than the granular pleasantries of day-to-day life, from slurping down spicy noodle bowls to doodling on a guitar. Ki, a Hong regular, holds the frame with a profound, coiled, unsentimental sense of stillness. The actor and the character each have an exhilarating gracefulness, but it’s imbued with the tension and the qualified splendor of a hedonist learning to live with less. The film’s final image, one of Hong’s most moving, has the nerve to ask: Why live with less? Why live if you can’t wash fried chicken down with Johnny Walker Black label?

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The interludes with Sangwon and Uiji complement each other thematically, given that they’re each concerned with artists who are wrestling with their legacies. But they also connect directly, as each contain objects that reveal to us the connections that the characters unknowingly share. Uiji gives someone a guitar on a lark, and it materializes in Sangwon’s world, meaning more to someone than Uiji could know. In long, emotionally charged takes, Hong underscores the impossibility of understanding the footprint we leave on ourselves and on those in our orbit.

Life is responsibility, whether it’s doing good work or showing a kitty our appreciation. Many things are rapturous, provided that you can get out of your own way. Such sentiments are pat in theory but agonizing in practice, and Hong’s films are his own gesture toward recognizing the beautiful, awful, and uncanny. In Our Day is, then, another one of his exorcisms.

Score: 
 Cast: Kim Min-hee, Ki Joo-bong, Song Sunmi, Park Misoo, Ha Seong-guk  Director: Hong Sang-soo  Screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo  Distributor: Cinema Guild  Running Time: 83 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2023

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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