On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

on the beach at night alone posterIt 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)

Helpless (화차, Byun Young-joo, 2012)

121003-006_1211020310103Review of Byun Young-joo’s Helpless (화차, Hwacha) first published by UK Anime Network


Can you ever really know another person? Everything you think you know about the people closest to you is founded on your own desire to believe what they’ve told you is the fundamental truth about themselves, yet you’ll never receive direct proof one way or the other. Byun Young-joo’s Helpless is based on Miyuki Miyabe’s popular novel Kasha (available in an English translation by Alfred Birnbaum under the title All She Was Worth) which literally means “fiery chariot” and is the name given to a subset of yokai who feed on the corpses of those who have died after accumulating evil deeds, which may tell you something about the direction this story is headed. After his fiancée suddenly disappears, one man discovers the woman he loved was not who she claimed to be, but perhaps also discovers that she was exactly who he thought she was all along.

Mun-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) and Seon-young (Kim Min-hee) are newly engaged and on their way to deliver a wedding invite to his parents in person. They seem bubbly and excited, still cheerful in the middle of a long car journey. It’s doubly surprising therefore when Mun-ho returns to the car after stopping at a service station to find that Seon-young has disappeared. Seon-young is not answering her phone and has left her umbrella behind despite the pouring rain which only leaves Mun-ho feeling increasingly concerned. His only clue is her distinctive hair clip lying on the floor of the petrol station toilet. Reporting his fiancée’s disappearance to the police, Mun-ho is more or less fobbed off as they come to the obvious conclusion that the couple must have argued and Seon-young has simply left him, as is her right. Confused, hurt, and worried Mun-ho turns to his old friend, Jong-geun (Cho Seong-ha), a recently disgraced ex-policeman, to help him understand what exactly has happened to the woman he thought he loved.

Mun-ho, helpless as the title, has no idea what might have transpired – has she been abducted? Was she in trouble, was someone after her? Did she simply get cold feet as the policemen suggested? A trip to Seon-young’s apartment reveals the place has been pretty thoroughly turned over leaving little trace behind, the entire apartment has even been swept for fingerprints in chillingly methodical fashion. Another clue comes from a close friend who’d been looking into the couple’s finances and found some improprieties in Seon-young’s past which he’s surprised she wouldn’t have mentioned. Perhaps she was embarrassed or ashamed of her credit history, but running out onto the motorway in the pouring rain without even stopping to pick up an umbrella seems like a massive overreaction for such an ordinary transgression.

What transpires is a tale of identity theft, vicious loan sharks, parental neglect, and the increasingly lonely, disconnected society which opens doors for the predatory. Usurious loans become an ironic recurring theme as they ruin lives left, right and centre. Following the financial crash, a father takes out a loan from gangsters to support his business but promptly goes missing. His wife is so distraught that she becomes too depressed to care for their daughter who ends up in a catholic orphanage. Gangsters have their own rules, the debt passes to the girl, young as she is, who is then forced to pay in non-monetary services until she finally escapes only to discover the torment is not yet over. Meanwhile, another woman takes out a series of loans to cover credit card debt and is forced to declare bankruptcy, left only with a lingering sense of shame towards her ailing mother who then dies in a freak accident leaving her a windfall inheritance which she uses to buy a fancy headstone for the woman she was never able to look after whilst still alive.

The original identity theft is only made possible by this fracturing of traditional communities in favour of impersonal city life. Nobody really knows anybody anymore – Seon-young had claimed to have no family and no close friends so there was no one to vouch for her. Many other young women are in similar positions, orphaned and unmarried, living in urban isolation with only work colleagues to wonder where they’ve got to should they not arrive at the office one day. Loneliness and boredom leave the door wide open for opportunists seeking to exploit such weaknesses for their own various gains.

Byun hints that something is wrong right away by switching to anxious, canted and strange angles filled with oddly cramped compositions. The eerie score enhances the feeling of impending doom as Mun-ho continues to dig into Seong-young’s past, finding confusion and reversals each way he looks. Seong-young was not who she claimed to be, and her tragic past traumas can in no way excuse her later conduct, but even if Mun-ho’s faith in her was not justified, there is a kind of pureness in his unwavering love which adds to the ongoing tragedy. Mun-ho fell in love with the woman Seong-young would have been if life had not been so cruel, and perhaps that part of her loved him too, but life is cruel and now it’s too late. An intriguingly plotted, relentlessly tense thriller Helpless will make you question everything you ever thought you knew about your nearest and dearest, but it is worth remembering that there are some questions it is better not to ask.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Handmaiden (아가씨, Park Chan-wook, 2016)

handmaiden.jpgPark Chan-wook has something of a track record when it comes to bending literary sources in unexpected ways – who else would have thought of adding vampires to Thérèse Raquin and actually managed to make it work? In The Handmaiden (아가씨, Agasshi), his first return to Korean filmmaking after Stoker’s foray into American Gothic, Park adapts Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – a Dickensian tale of love and the multilayered con, and relocates it to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule.

Ambivalent attitudes to the Japanese is a key element exploited by a ruthless conman posing as “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) in order to seduce a lonely heiress. To complete his elaborate plan, he needs the help of pickpocket extraordinaire, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), whom he will install as a maid in the household so she can subtly sell the virtues of the dashing nobleman to the innocent flower trapped in a well of opulence.

On arriving at the curiously constructed mansion which is an elegant architectural mix of Korean, Japanese, and English country estate, Sook-hee is quite literally out of place in the upperclass environment a world away from her home in a den of petty of thieves doubling as a baby farm. Another thing she had not quite banked on was that her new mistress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), would be quite so pretty. A serious spanner is thrown in the works as a mutual attraction builds up between the two women who, for reasons which become apparent, are being pulled in separate directions by other desires.

Park retains Waters’ tripartite structure even if he jettisons the final plot reveal for a less intricate tale of liberation and escape. Beginning with Sook-hee’s narrative he introduces us to the first layer of the con but also to Sook-hee and her down and dirty home in the criminal underworld. Chosen by the Count for her supposed lack of intellect and innocent naivety, Sook-hee is not quite at home among her family either. Both believing the promise that the babies they collect and sell in Japan will be going on to better lives and lamenting the cruelty of the whole business in wanting to mother the lot of them, Sook-hee is soft presence yet she also wants to prove herself as adept at criminality as her legendary, now deceased, mother.

It’s this essential warmth which eventually attracts Hideko’s attention. The much talked about tooth filing scene in which Sook-hee takes out a thimble to soften a lacerating sharpness in her mistress’ mouth is not just notable for the oddly erotic quality born of the obvious suggestive motion, unavoidable intimacy created by the closeness of bodies, and the growing desire of fleeting, furtive glances, but for its essential kindness. Moving into Hideko’s perspective for the second chapter, more is learned about her damaged past filled with cruelty and abuse. Orphaned and brought to Japan as a small child by her pornography obsessed uncle so that he might train her to entertain him with readings of erotic literature before he eventually marries her to inherit the family fortune, Hideko has never known anything as simple as unguarded goodness.

Caught up in a long con, the choice remains whether to blow cover and declare one’s hand or play the thing through to the end, however painful it may be. Park takes a different route than in the original novel which makes both of its heroines the victims of someone else’s avaricious plot of revenge against the cruelty of an unequal world, eventually reinforcing their bond by a shared rejection of their victimhood, but even when their passions eventually erupt the lovemaking begins as a another “con” where Sook-hee takes on the role of the Count, “educating” the assumedly “innocent” Hideko in the ways of desire.

Trapped within an oppressive gilded cage of a prison, Hideko has become the embodiment of desire for her cruel and eccentric uncle and the groups of men he invites to listen to her read erotic literature as if reciting a classical play. Complete with sideshows of sex dolls and theatrical scenery, Hideko is forced to act out the scenes from the books as an actress on the stage for an audience rapt in silence. Unable to escape alone, Hideko is offered new hope by Sook-hee’s straightforward outrage which allows the pair to destroy or repurpose the instruments of their oppression for their own pleasure. This is, in essence, their form of revenge in which they simply remove themselves from an abusive environment leaving the men behind to wonder at what’s gone wrong and later to destroy themselves without any additional help.

Filled with a gothic sense of impossible desires and uncertain judgements, The Handmaiden is unafraid of the genre’s melodramatic roots but is all the better for it. Beautifully photographed, this opulent world of swishing ball gowns and gloved hands is undercut by the ugliness of quisling collaborator Kouzuki and his basement of horrors. Erotically charged but ultimately driven by love, The Handmaiden is another unconventionally romantic effort from Park albeit one coloured by his characteristic sense of gothic darkness.


Reviewed at 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)