David Jenkins


On the Beach At Night Alone – first look review

The wistful latest from Korean maestro Hong Sang-soo is powered by an exceptional lead performance.

It’s possible to see this, in some obscure way, as Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s spartan, deglamourised version of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, in that it seeks to get intimate with a film actress who has fallen out of favour with the movie industry. Her emotional honesty – baldly direct and often bitingly funny to witness – makes it difficult for her to be accepted into an artistic community which, in Korea at least, is dominated by noxious male egos who baulk from the prospect of conflict.

These preening male directors are flanked by toadying hangers on. They wax poetic about their lithe leading ladies. They laud past successes as a way to divert from the actor’s impending estrangement from the industry. But this patina of fake politeness is brutally shattered, always.

The complex psychological dynamic between those in front of and behind the camera remains one of Hong’s abiding obsessions, yet this subtly penetrating new one appears to be his most self-lacerating work in back catalogue coloured by casual self laceration. Kim Mihn-hee’s lovelorn wanderer, Younghee, is the tragic product of a system of manipulation. Her dreamlike depression and confusion are a symptom of all those men who have done wrong by her. In the film, she’s always waiting for confirmation of love rather than experiencing it in the moment. It’s about the pain of the holding pattern, the damaging effects of uncertainty.

As is now a Hong staple, the film comprises of just a few lengthy dialogue sequences in which characters gab politely about their earthly woes. Later on, they begin to broadcast the bitter reality that hides underneath the words when a few quarts of Sojo have been filtered into their bloodstream. Hong often mixes drunkenness with dreams, hard-cutting to characters waking up following a spell of loose-tongued drama. The effect that intoxication can have on the mind can be dreamlike when it comes to our recall of salient detail. Events become hazy, and waking up is the moment where consciousness is clarified and the awkward process of mending can begin.

The film appears as a direct response to the news that Hong had an affair Kim, yet it was the actress who bore the brunt of public censure because she had meddled with a married man. This context seems vital to appreciate the film’s subtle investigation of master-muse power struggles, and in many ways On the Beach at Night Alone could be seen as Hong playing things exclusively to his hardened acolytes. As mellow and compelling as the film is on a superficial level, it’s certainly tough to discern whether it would be lost on those who weren’t up on the biographical underpinnings.

More digressive and narratively promiscuous than recent career high, Right Now, Wrong Then, this one is buoyed by Kim’s subdued, ultra-melancholic central performance which switches between virulent rage and baleful decorum and shows nothing in the middle. The title could even allude to Younghee’s descent into alcoholism, as one of her repeated refrains later in the film is how delicious she now finds economy domestic lager.

The film opens in Germany during what looks like the drizzly season. The stark, grey landscapes counterpoint Younghee’s strained enthusiasm towards her current bout of enforced freedom. She even gets the chance to dine with with Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson in his own apartment, and perhaps it’s the vast cultural chasm that coerces her back to Korea to face her demons.

She visits a book shop in which the terminally ill owner says of his own piano compositions, “These are simple pieces, but if you go deeper, they become more complicated.” This sentence is either the oversized key to the film, or a challenge set by Hong to question whether anything in life can be described as simple. This is a remarkable and strangely troubling film. You’re left with little hope for Younghee’s future.

Published 19 Feb 2017

Tags: Berlin Film Festival Hong Sang-soo Korean Cinema

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