Like other Hong Sang-soo films, In Our Day passes, on the surface, for simple fare. The prolific South Korean director layers weighty themes amidst naturalistic filmmaking, almost documentary-style in his willingness to let the camera sit without needing any extra flourishes. Cutting between two scenes––both playing out over a single afternoon––Hong focuses his energy on the dialogue between his characters, on the rapid intergenerational misconceptions. In doing so he muses on the pessimism of art, the somewhat meaningless nature of life, and how we interpret the actions and words of our fictional heroes.
In one scene, a student goes to visit Ui-ju (Ki Joo-bong), a poet who lives like a hermit, drinking his days away. In the other, a young woman visits her cousin, a former actress named Sang-won (Kim Min-hee) who’s disillusioned by the roles she’s been given, due to lack of autonomy on set. In these scenes, hopeful artists get doses of reality, peppered by those more successful and more jaded, pushed to another way of thinking about their desired careers.
Through long swigs of beer, Ui-ju tells this student––and another who’s filming a documentary on him––about his poetry, and by extension his life. He speaks about the commitment to art, the all-consuming nature of creation. He drinks excessively, sometimes chugging longer than he’s talking. For the famous poet, truth doesn’t exist. All questions of truth, love, art––the big, unwieldy unanswerables––are actually all the same. In fewer words: believing in constant meaning is overrated.
And is that correct? Does it ring true in today’s world? The questions sit in the front of the viewer’s mind, simmering, knowing the answers won’t be found in Hong’s film. The director has no intention of answering them in this project, though he keeps coming back to these ideas time and again. Truth can become a sledgehammer in modern films, themes that filmmakers cannot wait to tell their audiences. Hong chooses a path of awareness and indirect messaging, gently pulling us along for these conversations, flies on the wall unable to chime in.
Meanwhile, Sang-won tells her cousin about the lack of glamor in the day-to-day of acting. Her cousin remains unfazed as they eat ramen, the younger of them unable to handle the spice that her family easily throws on. It’s a bit of an obvious metaphor, but one that still lands with a slightness of comedy and a clear distinction between the two generations.
Ki becomes In Our Day‘s central figure, regardless of its ensemble. The veteran actor eats up his time onscreen––memorable every moment he’s speaking, even when he’s half-listening to the questions of his visitors. He has an aura of confidence, an ability to make it seem every random thought should be valued. Agreeing with his points becomes moot when the actor himself gives such a tremendous, easygoing performance. He’s not boisterous or loud, but doesn’t waver when pushed. Kim deserves recognition for carrying her scenes, too, exhibiting a quiet devastation in the role of this retired actress.
In Our Day remains straightforward in its filmmaking, attaining depth through dialogue designed to cause the viewer to think about the value and meaning of the art they consume––among other things, the film itself. It’s cyclical in a way, and Hong knows that, adding to his collection of understated, underseen films with great performances.
In Our Day screened at the 61st New York Film Festival and will be released by Cinema Guild.