It might be unkind to suggest that Hong Sang-soo has essentially been remaking the same film for much of his career, but then again his most characteristic approach is one of re-examination, taking one event and turning it around to see how things might have played out differently if fate had only been kinder. On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자, Bamui Haebyunaeseo Honja) eschews Hong’s usual repetitions, but zooms in deeper on its protagonist’s agonising emotional crisis as she attempts to deal with the fallout from a passionate yet inadvisable affair with a married director which threatens to destroy not only her personal life but also the professional in conservative Korean society. The elephant in the room is, of course, that lead actress Kim Min-hee and the film’s director Hong Sang-soo were themselves involved in a messy affair which scandalised their home nation, forcing the lovers abroad and away from media speculation but perhaps not from the uncomfortable questions surrounding their relationship.
Divided into two parts shot by different cinematographers, the film begins in Hamburg where well known actress Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) has travelled to visit a friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), to clear her head and get away from all the fuss at home. Jee-young has been living in the city for a few years since her own marriage ended – like Young-hee she came to visit a friend and subsequently decided to stay. Young-hee thinks perhaps she could do the same but is surprised when her friend reacts negatively to the idea of her moving in. The two women chat and try to talk out Young-hee’s ongoing indecision and emotional turmoil while she waits to see if her married film director lover will really come to Hamburg to meet her as he says he will or lose his nerve at the last moment.
The second half picks up some time later with Young-hee (presumably the same Young-hee or at least a woman with a very similar backstory) in a cinema watching a film. She’s gone home to Korea and to her tiny seaside hometown rather than the harsh streets of Seoul. Whilst there she runs into a series of old friends, many of whom have also boomeranged back from the big city, finding it relentless and unforgiving in its unrealistic expectations of their desire for success. Young-hee is just as mixed-up as she was in Hamburg, but her collection of friends prove less reliable sounding boards than the world weary yet perceptive Jee-young.
Hong’s films have often revolved around self-centred, neurotic men who treat women badly while the women remain exasperated yet resigned and only occasionally hurt. Digging deep, Hong makes an effort to look at something from the other side in painting a picture of the real emotional damage done by the kinds of affairs his usual protagonist may engage in (though to be fair most of protagonists are eventually rebuffed by their objects of affection). Kim’s nuanced performance is raw and painful. Hurt and brokenhearted, Young-hee is angry with her former lover but still, she misses him, wonders how he is, hopes he’ll be alright but also, in a way, that he won’t.
Young-hee is a mess of contradictions – she says she won’t wait and then she waits, she says she won’t drink and then she does (to excess), she says she’s overly direct yet she consistently avoids speaking directly, she says harasses people and messes everything up but all she seems to do is isolate herself and avoid connection, she goes to Hamburg to escape and then feels trapped. Jee-young, a little older, seems to have pinned herself down but says she feels somewhat jealous of Young-hee’s youth, her confidence and capacity for desire. There is a melancholy quality to Jee-young’s conviction that she is “the kind of person who lives alone”, but she harbours no resentment towards her former husband, only a mild sense of regret in having wasted his time. Young-hee may be filled with desire, but has no idea what for.
On the Beach at Night Alone shares its title with a poem by Walt Whitman which, like many of Whitman’s poems, is essentially about the interconnectedness of all things and overwhelming sensation of suddenly feeling a part of a great confluence of existence. It is in that sense ironic as Young-hee and many of her friends continue to feel isolated and alone, playing it safe and avoiding the risk of true connection only to find settling for the sure thing more painful than the emotional implosion of Young-hee’s daringly bold affair of the heart. A night on a beach alone affords her the opportunity of sorting things out, if only in her head, finally learning to stand up and walk away towards an uncertain, but hopefully self-determined, future.
Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.
Trailer (English subtitles)