The central image of Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone is that of a woman quietly curled up and lying motionless on the sand, her back turned to us. It’s not repeated all that often in the film — we just see it twice, really — but it is echoed in other moments, in particular one scene when we see the same woman, Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) unexpectedly stop and kneel down quietly in front of a small bridge, as if in some sort of silent, sudden prayer. In a chatty film that otherwise consists of people walking and talking or sitting and talking — their conversation often lubricated by food and drink, as in much of Hong Sang-soo’s work — the spectacle of a woman communing quietly with the ground, whether in prayer, despair or hope, speaks to an indefinable sense of longing, an added layer of metaphysical sadness enveloping the picture.
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There’s no real story on the surface of On the Beach at Night Alone. The first half-hour or so follows Young-hee in Hamburg, visiting a divorced friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), as they hang out at a market, visit a musician-bookseller and join a German couple for dinner. The rest of the film follows Young-hee back in Korea, where she interacts with other people from her life. That’s what happens on screen, though there’s an emotional narrative here as well, one that’s hinted at subtly at first and then gradually gathers prominence: Young-hee is an actress who has recently had a torrid fling with a director. We hear mentions of a man possibly coming to visit her in the Hamburg scenes; he never does. The emotional legacy of the affair comes to color all her interactions — until she actually sits with the director at a drunken (and possibly imaginary) dinner near the film’s end and confronts him, prompting him to have a teary breakdown.
Some real-life context may be required at this point. Director Hong and younger star Kim Min-hee became gossip fodder in Korea last year when it was alleged that they were having an affair — a relationship that they confirmed earlier this year. It resulted in the actress's being dropped by her managers and portrayed in the press as some sort of home wrecker. One could see On the Beach at Night Alone therefore as a kind of penance — a reflection on the hurt Hong caused his lover, whose melancholy dominates the picture, and a reckoning with his own inadequacies, particularly in that final dinner scene.
But even if you don’t know anything about the director’s life, Hong’s films have always seemed personal; their candor and their naturalistic and lived-in rhythms feel like they’re coming from a place of stark honesty. Knowing the real-life inspiration for On the Beach at Night Alone may help one appreciate the film’s moral trajectory a bit better. But the movie’s charms work on a much more immediate level, in the way that it captures the ever-shifting dynamic between men and women, and the difficulty of matching one’s feelings to one’s words. The early Hamburg sequences often hint at the challenges of speaking in a foreign language, with the programmatic, phrase-book quality of the conversations. (“It’s so delicious.” “Thank you very much. It’s really easy to make, and then it’s really good food. Do you eat pasta in Korea?” “Yes. I was really hungry.” “You can have more if you like.”)
In the Korean scenes, on the other hand, where there is no actual language barrier, people either make feinting glances at honesty — dancing agonizingly around important subjects — or they go all in, blurting out more than they want. Though Hong films these scenes in his typically casual, unfussy manner (long takes, simple masters, etc.), the imbalance between thought and action keeps everything on edge. You never quite know where one of these conversations will go. Hong examines the turmoil of human interaction — the pain of honesty as well as the frustration of inexpressiveness. Which, in the end, might be why the image we carry away is its loneliest, quietest one.