Prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s “On the Beach At Night Alone” reflects on the failed relationship of a woman named Younghee (Kim Minhee) with a well-known filmmaker.
It says something about Hong’s degree of self-critique and distance from standard male fantasies that he wrote a script that reflects the life he and Kim are really living right now but plays things out in a completely different direction. The first time I saw “On the Beach At Night Alone,” its narrative about women attracted to directors seemed like the latest in a long string of such stories from Hong.
About 10 minutes after the press screening ended, I was standing around talking to other critics when I learned that Hong and Kim really are “adulterous” lovers whose relationship has become a Korean tabloid media scandal. But they are only committing adultery because South Korea doesn’t have no-fault divorce. Hong and his wife, whose daughter is an adult, have been separated for a decade, but she won’t grant him a divorce. He and Kim are doing nothing wrong in my eyes, but that’s not how the press in Korea sees things, and it explains why the first third of “On the Beach At Night Alone” takes place in Germany, with a supporting performance from Canadian film critic Mark Peranson. Hong and Kim were genuinely taking a break in Europe from the pressures back home when they shot that portion of the film.
At the beginning of “On the Beach At Night Alone,” Younghee is visiting an older friend, Jeeyoung (Seo Younghwa), in Hamburg. Her mood is tense and unsettled, but she never fully explains why. She walks around town with Jeeyoung, admitting that she has broken up with a filmmaker. She is also putting an acting career on hold. (Americans are probably more likely to recognize Kim from her role in Park Chan-wook’s extremely popular “The Handmaiden” than her performances in Hong’s work.) Jeeyoung has gone through similar issues, but recovered from them more successfully. Then, a second set of credits roll and Younghee is inside a movie theater in Gangneung, South Korea. She hangs out with friends in cafés and restaurants, killing time frequently getting drunk on soju, a Korean rice liquor. Her mood grows darker, as everything seems to be up in the air for her.
“On The Beach At Night Alone” is not exactly a film a clef, but even the press materials supplied by its American distributor admit it bears a resemblance to Hong and Kim’s life at the moment. However, Hong didn’t lazily ask Kim to play herself in her exact situation. He is still interested in fooling around with bifurcated structure. Apart from the dual settings and credits, the two parts of “On the Beach At Night Alone” were shot by separate cinematographers, although the difference isn’t hugely noticeable. The film has a pastel look throughout. The emphasis is on character over narrative.
I’ve seen two of the three films Hong has made in 2017. (The third, “Claire’s Camera,” hasn’t played New York yet, although it stars Isabelle Huppert.) There’s a noticeable darkening in his tone. If some of his work resembles the comedies of Éric Rohmer, “The Day After,” and “On the Beach At Night Alone” come closer to the autobiographical lacerations of Jean Eustache and Philippe Garrel. But it’s a fantasy of what could go wrong in his affair with Kim, a worst-case scenario reflection on a passion that still seems to be going strong. Hong is still unwilling to serve up a straight memoir or let himself play out a fantasy in which a woman acts as his perfect love object. To put it mildly, a director like Woody Allen could learn a lot from him.
Stylistically, Hong settled on a look for his films early on and stuck with it: “On the Beach At Night Alone” is based on long takes whose dynamics are controlled by a zoom lens rather than camera movement. He really has his actors get drunk during the scenes in which they imbibe soju, and their ability to remember their lines and deliver good performances while intoxicated is remarkable. (Characters in Hong’s films drink alcohol almost as often as Cheech and Chong smoked pot, with the narrative climaxes often coming in restaurants where everyone is trashed.)
It’s a shame that New Yorkers won’t see this film now in the context of the other two 2017 Hong films; he has kept up a remarkable pace of exactly 21 films since his debut film, “The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well,” in 1996, and is now in production on a 22nd. Many festival programmers, critics, and cinephiles have long since decided his work is the equal of French New Wave directors like Rohmer. Alas, American audiences have never gone for it, although his 2015 film “Right Now, Wrong Then” played briefly at the Metrograph last year. Don’t miss your chance at an update from one of world cinema’s current giants, whose power stems partially from Kim’s ability to play a variation on herself.
ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE | Directed by Hong Sang-soo | In Korean with English subtitles and English | The Cinema Guild | Opens Nov. 17 | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St.; filmlinc.org | The Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., btwn. Hester & Canal Sts.; metrograph.com