In Our Day Find Profundity in the Very Smallest of Things

In Our Day

Hong Sangsoo’s films have always been thinly veiled fictions about his own life and art. In Our Day (2023) is no exception, making the comparison exceptionally obvious by focussing on a poet literally called Mr. Uiju Hong (Ki Joobong). He’s a pleasant, if slightly irritable old man, receiving renewed fame for his work. He hosts a young student documentarian, Kim Kijoo (Kim Seungyun) and an acting student/super fan, Song Jaewon (Ha Seongguk), at his small apartment. He has been told by his doctor not to drink or smoke anymore. To compensate, he’s putting strong pepper paste into his ramyun. 

Pepper paste is the thin line that connects his story to Sangwon’s (Kim Minhee), also playing a variation on herself, a semi-retired actress looking to figure out the next stage of her life. She’s staying with her friend Jungsoo (Song Sunmi). Both of them enjoy feeding their cat, Us, snacks; a big, fluffy white boy, who is getting fat. In a long and casual take, the cat seems to dictate Hong’s camera movements, themselves filled with the spontaneity and languidness of life itself. To some, it’s pointless and self-absorbed: to me, it’s pure cinema catnip. 

Hong’s second film to reach festivals in five months after In Water’s (2023) premiere at Berlin Encounters, it perhaps lacks the formal leap of the previous work, which utilised soft focus to fine impressionistic effect, but revels in small gestures, and excellent, unforced acting, using its modesty in approach to take aim at the big, important questions. A minor Hong perhaps, but still a delightful, slightly profound evocation of the smaller things in life. 

If anything in life is worth preserving, perhaps it’s giving into the tiny pleasures. The process of drinking and smoking in Hong’s films keeps his characters alive, human, relatable — serving as punctuation, exclamation, hesitation and equivocation. As the price of alcohol goes up, smoking bans are enforced, e-cigarettes become more popular, and drinking less trendy, his characters have changed with the times, stepping outside to smoke, attempting different drinks, and commenting more on their alcohol consumption. The title of In Our Day suggests this might not be for the better. 

Mr. Hong knows he shouldn’t drink. Or smoke. But, in sequence after sequence, he slyly intones how nice a glass of soju could be right now. In In Our Day, he’s tested. Song Jaewon seems well-meaning, but his endless questions about the meaning of life, truth, poetry, art, make Mr. Hong yearn more and more for those small vices. The finale is perhaps predictable, but its simple conclusion is still mightily effective. As life is so short and so fleeting, knowing what to fill it with, and knowing how to enjoy it, becomes all the more important. 

Mr. Hong’s story is mirrored through Sangwon’s story, as she and Jungsoo are joined by their cousin Jisoo (Park Miso). Copying specific character movements, settings, and dramatic pacing, Hong allows us to draw direct comparisons, especially as Jisoo is also an actress looking for inspiration from Sangwon. In another excellent take, which uses a fantastic zoom midway to stress the importance of looking around us and focusing on nature, Sangwon (or is it Minhee?) explains how good acting is linked to authenticity, and waxes lyrical about finding a director who helped her to achieve her aim. 

It’s the weaker of the two parts, lacking the will-they-won’t-they tension of Mr. Hong’s humorous slide back into vice, yet it serves as a neat counterpoint, highlighting the importance of finding the right people around you to make art. With Hong Sangsoo’s stripped-back productions, where she often fills in as production manager, you can sense a woman deeply comfortable in her own skin, her truly luminescent, genuine-cinema-star presence belying the garishness of the lighting and the cheap digital cinematography. Linked only by the presence of pepper paste, both Sangwon and Mr. Hong, have their priorities in order. It’s easy to say the same for Hong Sangsoo as well.