The messiness of life in "On the Beach at night alone"
At first glance, the filmography of Hong Sang-soo appears neat and orderly — and repetitive. The prolific writer/director typically makes a feature a year, sometimes more often; he has three releases slated for 2017, for example. He frequently returns to the same types of scenarios, characters and playful structures.
Someone is often yearning for love and trying to piece together their life in his movies. Filmmakers and actors commonly feature in his narratives, and the same talent is usually seen on screen. Eating, drinking and chatting — and combining the last two, arguing under the influence of soju or beer — pop up again and again. And, unravelling each tale in an easy, linear fashion is rarely on the agenda.
Still, there’s no such thing as a routine Hong effort, and nor does any listing on his ever-growing resume feel as if it’s a cursory inclusion. Similarly, while much about his work favours recurrence, little stacks up as nicely as it might appear on paper. For the filmmaker, life is messy and so is his chosen profession. Indeed, as he riffs on his own to follow an actress having an affair with a married director in On the Beach at Night Alone — something he has been rumoured to have done himself, with the movie’s star, his frequent lead and Berlinale best actress winner Kim Min-hee, no less — the parallels between the two couldn’t be more apparent.
Kim plays Young-hee, a Korean almost in hiding in Hamburg in the film’s first half, in an attempt to escape the controversy around her love life. She walks and talks with her friend Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), eats with locals, and wonders if her lover will join her as planned, yet only seems at ease when she’s embracing the solace of the spot where the sand meets the sea, by herself and in the evening. In the second portion, Young-hee has arrived back Gangneung, only to cross paths with old acquaintances that are keenly aware of the scandal. Further discussion and boozing ensues, though once again, visiting the shoreline solo under the stars beckons.
It all seems simple. Narratively, On the Beach at Night Alone is, in fact. But Hong watches and waits as he depicts slivers of Young-hee’s existence that probe the many ripples her romantic liaison has caused — to finessed and thoughtful effect. While his trademark for quick zooms remain, guiding the audience’s attention in pivotal moments, his ability to linger proves just as revealing. Beneath the recognisably familiarity of his many trademarks lurks a portrait of lust, love and longing that defines the character’s in the film’s midst. And though the same could be said of many of his movies, each offers a new fragment of his broader collage of amorous-centric human interaction.
Here, a deeper mood of melancholy infuses his latest musing — but, of course, that’s one way that matters of the heart can turn out, perhaps even more so in a filmmaking career somewhat dedicated to the topic. That tone seeps through the imagery, naturalistic as ever in Hong’s work, but is splashed most strongly, powerfully and masterfully across the screen in Kim’s performance. When Young-hee is liquored and fired up, to the point of slinging insults and sharing kisses, there’s no escaping her torment; when she’s staring at the beach, or sleeping on it, her face always betrays her sadness. There may be few things more picturesque than the sight of someone standing against a scenic backdrop in the manner of On the Beach at Night Alone’s title, and yet if there’s one notion that Hong returns to again and again, it’s that even in the most straightforward of circumstances, little is ever what it seems, with the reality almost always much more complicated.