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Film after film, South Korean indie auteur Hong Sang-soo has examined the meaning of love in his characters’ lives, as man meets woman with subtle fugue-like variations. When it’s not soporific, On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja) is a wryly observant study of a young actress whose affair with a married filmmaker has left her with the wrenching pain of loss and longing. Shot on a budget on a handful of locations in Germany and South Korea, the story is scarce to non-existent, but Kim Min-hee in the main role keeps the audience awake, waiting for her next socially uncensored outburst of truth. The forecast is for limited appeal beyond the edgiest art house audiences.
To even call the film a study or a portrait may be going too far. It’s more a series of Rohmer-like scenes from a life which casually reveal something about the characters, who do very little, but talk a lot about themselves. Gathered around a dining table, they scream their feelings as the bottles of Soju wine accumulate in front of them.
It’s an oddly oblique way to make movies, but Hong gets under their skin to find the profound loneliness at the heart of all relationships. His recent work chooses a young woman’s point of view. On the Beach at Night Alone comfortably nestles between his dissection of the encounter between a famous filmmaker and a young painter (who was also played by Kim) in Right Now, Wrong Then, and the tormented romance between a student and her teacher in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon.
Here Kim, who got notices as the beautiful Japanese heiress in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, has the film practically to herself. Her Young-hee vaunts a modern aplomb and a desire to live her own way that makes her easy to identify with. We first meet her on a visit to Hamburg, where she is simultaneously waiting for her lover to come to her and trying to convince herself it doesn’t matter. She bounces inconsequential dialogue off an older woman friend, who has been there for a decade. She even considers moving to Germany and seems surprised when her friend declines to share her apartment.
Typically, Hong’s extremely glancing screenplay only reveals, much later, how this turns out. Instead, the two women visit a German couple; the man (film critic Mark Peranson in a laid-back cameo) is presumably Young-hee’s friend’s ex-husband, judging by her nervousness. Their relationship just died out after 10 years from a lack of desire, which the passionate Young-hee still has plenty of. All this is before we discover she is a talented actress who is taking a break from her screen career to pursue an affair with an older, married filmmaker.
The four of them drive to a gray winter beach, where the first “chapter” of the film enigmatically concludes with a circular camera pan and Young-hee apparently passed out, though it is far from clear what happened. We next find her back in Korea, this time visiting a beach town off-season and on her own. Her love affair, we will learn, is formally over, but its emotional effects linger on; smoking a cigarette, she sings a song to herself about love and yearning.
No film by Hong, the master of excruciating social moments, would be complete without drunken dinner parties, and a pair furnish the key payoff scenes. The film’s slow, do-nothing pace vanishes in some piercing psychological revelations.
Two old acquaintances who run a local film theater gently come on to Young-hee in a humorous wink at another well-trodden theme from Hong’s work, male narcissism and emotional immaturity. When she goes out with them and their wives and gets drunk over dinner, she proceeds to insult most of the company, telling them they’re “not qualified to love.” But she’s so charming — and apparently still a bankable name that can be exploited — they forgive her.
The best is saved for last. Finding her only solace in nature, Young-hee is found sleeping on the cold beach by her lover’s assistant and from him discovers her ex is in town shooting a new film. With no further ado, we find them at dinner in a restaurant, already loaded with alcohol and ready to fire the final salvos at each other and themselves. When the director reads a passage about them, probably from his own book, and breaks down in tears, it’s clear he’s still broken-hearted, but also that his great love for Young-hee revolves around his own ego.
As usual, the camerawork is peppered with disturbing zooms which are almost as irritating as the characters’ universal habit of answering questions with other questions. Otherwise, the maverick framing is a pleasurable tease, excluding what you most want to see. Cinematography by Kim Hung-koo and Park Hong-yeol is melancholy, shot under gray winter skies, where even nature seems to be shedding a tear to the accompaniment of Franz Schubert’s deeply moving “Cello Quintet.”
Production company: Jeonwonsa Film Company
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Seo Young-hwa, Jung Jae-young, Moon Sung-keun, Kwon Hae-hyo, Song Seon-mi
Director-producer-screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo
Directors of photography: Kim Hung-koo, Park Hong-yeol
Editor: Hahm Sung-won
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival
World sales: Finecut
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