After 14 years of self-imposed exile, Joon-tae suddenly visits his hometown, Wang Sib Ri. Gone are the minari fields and streetcars, now the town is smudged with coal dust and smoke from factory smokestacks. The people have left too, except for a handful of buddies who are too busy to fool around with yesterday’s friend. Only Choi, the manager of a local billiards room, remains the same. Hanging around his motel and the billiards hall every day, Joon-tae lukewarmly flirts with Yoon-ae, a call-girl with a golden heart, while searching — against everyone’s dissuasion — for Jeong-hui, his ex-girlfriend and now somebody else’s wife. Meanwhile, his Japanese gangster bro Sasaki watches over him, worrying that maybe he doesn’t want to go back to Japan where a big gangland war awaits them.
At first glance, the film seems overflowing with nostalgia. Rapid industrialization and urbanization has changed almost everything in Wang Sib Ri — faces, places, even the landscape. Joon-tae has become a total stranger in his own hometown, a ghost from yesterday. A few familiar remnants of the past evoke memories at once, but eventually only serve to remind him of their absence. As in Lee Man-hee’s The Road to Sampo (1975), home is a long-lost illusion to yearn for, rather than an actual place one can go back to.
Having witnessed his family and village torn apart by the postwar right-left ideological conflict, and then branded as a “commie’s son” under the rightist military dictatorship, the director himself once hated his country and gave up on life. “Home” was only a cruel joke for him. But in the 1970s, Im projected his inner demon on the screen, and tried to reconcile with it. We can find that pessimism at its height in his suicidal masterpiece Snow Falls on the Streets of Vengeance (1971). Then, he starts to soften it through a more modest but still harsh farewell to “street life” in Arrivals and Departures (1972).
In Wang Sib Ri, Im allows his protagonist self-reflection by subverting and re-evaluating the conventions of the genre, or even of classical dramaturgy. Indifferent to plot-driven structure, the film loosens the cause-and-effect linkage between scenes, regarding each scene and character action almost like dead time. Many things happen around Joon-tae, but none of them seems to be absorbed into him. The more he plays billiards, drinks with friends and talks with women, the more clearly we can see that he isn’t interested in any of them, and vice versa. Characteristically and structurally, he loses his status as the protagonist (even though he appears in almost every scene). And contrasted to this are the people around him, especially women.
At first, both Yoon-ae and Jeong-hui seem to want something — whether love or money — from Joon-tae. But in the end, the film respects them as independent beings who can decide their own fates regardless of him. Indeed, so firmly do these women determine their own future that if this were a common genre picture focused on the hero, Joon-tae might regard this as a “betrayal” which would derail his destiny. But since they are not so tightly bound to him, he doesn’t interfere with their lives, keeping them at a distance. From this distance, his self-reflection begins.
In relation to that, Wang Sib Ri offers a unique ending in Im’s oeuvre. I won’t spoil that sublime final scene set on New Year’s Day here, but it’s not too much to say that the scene is one of the most crucial moments in the director’s career. Here, the master finally and openly embraces his long-hated origins, not forced a bit by political pressure from the government, demands for commercial success, or the conventions of the genre, but only by his own willpower to live on.