Director: Hong Sang-soo
London Film Festival review
The shadow of scandal hangs over Hong Sang-soo’s slippery and self-deprecating On the Beach at Night Alone, a despondent though characteristically playful variant on the director’s long-established formula for subtly poignant drama. It was at the Seoul premiere of this very film that Hong admitted to having an affair with its star, Kim Min-hee, an extraordinary actress who earned international attention for her role in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and now delivers what is arguably her most compelling performance to date.
While Kim dominates the screen, Hong’s presence is unmistakable as he once more uses his medium of choice to assess his own experiences and character from a new angle. The resultant film is a haunting act of guilt-ridden contemplation that probes not only the personal flaws and insecurities that could have led to his affair but also questions the nobility of using confessional art as a means of unloading emotional burdens.
This being a Hong Sang-soo film, much of the drama in On the Beach at Night Alone is dependent on the elusive ways in which a person’s state of mind can be influenced by their environment and the passage of time. The first half hour sees actress Young-hee (Kim) wander the streets and parks of Hamburg with her friend Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa) as she reflects on her recent affair with married director Sang-won (Seong-kun Mun). Though Young-hee’s trip abroad may be a conscious attempt at self-therapy through change, she returns to Korea emboldened but clearly not over her heartbreak.
Wherever Young-hee goes, loneliness and regret inhabit every wistful silence and every (often alcohol-fuelled) exchange with old friends and their new lovers. Through a deftly arranged accumulation of details, Hong establishes the emotional isolation and internal struggles of men and women stuck in ego-driven cycles of habit or rendered stationary by unsated desire. As dialogue-heavy as his films can be, Hong remains a director who can find powerful emotion in stillness and the unspoken.
On the Beach at Night Alone shows remarkable empathy and understanding towards every one of its characters but its most fascinating characterisation might also be its most scathing. When Young-hee bitterly confronts director Sang-won, the man is reduced to an anguished and emasculated figure who is easy to pity and difficult to respect but our response is complicated by this teary-eyed figure’s obvious role as a stand-in for Hong.
When Young-hee dismisses Sang-won’s next project with the comment that personal films are ‘boring’, Hong betrays a striking awareness that one sorrowful work of cinematic self-deprecation neither will nor should be enough to let him off the hook. In this regard, On the Beach at Night Alone is both a tender statement of regret and a mournful admission of the self-absolving and evasive intentions that can lurk behind such emotional purges. Ultimately, Hong offers no closure for Young-hee, Sang-won or himself, and it is this sombre open-endedness that makes this a film to turn over in the mind as though Hong’s guilt were our own.
On the Beach at Night Alone screens 11th, 12th and 15th October as part of the London Film Festival 2017. More info here.