In the summer of 2016, prolific director Hong Sang-soo was revealed to be having an affair with actress Kim Min-hee, an affair that supposedly started on the set of their collaboration Right Now, Wrong Then. The affair led Hong to leave his wife of 30 years.
Normally, this would be good fodder for gossip magazines, but should not be more than a footnote when it comes to judging an artist and his work. But the story is hard to ignore when looking at Hong’s latest film, On the Beach at Night Alone, where he again collaborates with Kim Min-hee. She plays an actress, Young-hee, who has had an affair with a married man, a film director to boot. After the affair, she flees to Hamburg for a while to be out of the spotlight, hoping he will join her. When he doesn’t, she returns to Korea and meets up with old friends, among them a couple living in an apartment on the beach. One day, she falls asleep on the beach, only to be woken by a film crew busy scouting locations for her lover’s new film. At an awkward dinner she finally comes face to face with him again. Will Young-hee finally get an answer to the question of how important love is in one’s life, in particular her life?
The parallels are pretty clear (and read Right Now, Wrong Then‘s synopsis again for more pieces of a gossip puzzle), which makes watching On the Beach at Night Alone a strange, almost creepy experience, even if the film was shot before Hong and Kim’s affair came to light (or even more so, if you will). Real life is hard to wipe out when you’re famous. The most striking aspect is that Hong approaches this episode in his life from the point of view of the woman in the center of it all. Young-hee is portrayed as a woman who was hurt by the experience, and is now questioning the worth of love. At a dinner with friends, after copious amounts of alcohol, she gets feisty when the subject of love comes up, and suggests the world could do without men altogether, and then proceeds to kiss a female friend (almost a nod to Kim’s role in last year’s The Handmaiden). At the final confrontation, again over dinner and rice wine, Hong doesn’t spare himself, as his alter ego grovels before a berating Young-hee. However, the final scene suggests that Young-hee might not have gotten the closure that she seemed to find earlier, which makes the conclusion of the film, and thus in a sense Hong’s view on his relationship with Kim, more unclear.
Discussing life and love over food and alcohol is nothing new for a Hong feature, but the background of these scenes makes them stand out from similar material in the director’s other films. Where those films often build in the layers by revisiting the same scenes, yet slightly altered, here it is real life that provides the layers within these scenes. Apparently more linear in structure, On the Beach at Night Alone is a bit of an odd one out in Hong’s genre if one doesn’t look beneath the surface. Although many of his films have autobiographical elements to some extent, the narrative cuts really close here. It only deepens the appreciation for Kim Min-hee’s strong performance as a woman disappointed in love, a melancholic soul whose torment comes out in sharp stabs (and under the influence of the ubiquitous rice wine).
But is the narrative really all that linear? The film is split in two halves, the former focusing on Young-hee in Hamburg, the latter in Gangneung, Korea. The way the first part segues into the second shows Hong has a structural trick up his sleeve though. Near the end of the Hamburg section, Young-hee and a friend visit a book dealer who has written songs for children. They’re really simple, he explains, but if you look a little deeper there is a lot more to them. As we move to Korea, we get new opening credits. The first shot is of Young-hee in an empty theater, as if what we just saw was a film she was watching, and it was all imagined. This pattern returns at the end of the film, as Young-hee is woken for a second time on the beach, suggesting that the whole second act might have been a dream. The plea by the book dealer to look a little deeper suggests a sleight of Hong’s hand, and at once puts On the Beach at Night Alone closer to the rest of his filmography as a rumination on life and love, the exception being this is a rumination on Hong’s life and love. It’s a deeply personal work that will not win the director any new fans, certainly not given the backstory, but will delight his existing base. On the Beach at Night Alone provides fodder for armchair psychologists and film analysts alike as a curious entry in Hong’s body of work that can be enjoyed without the juicy background. It just gives the work an extra dimension.