In an interview with Hong Sang-soo following the release of Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), the director stated, “the artist I admire most is Cezanne.” Cezanne’s impressionism was manifested by abstracting nature into simpler forms. Hong in his more recent years has done something similar: he replaced the cut with the zoom. These zooms clarify and emphasize moments for us, limits the space we are in—a method not of freedom, but prevention. Yet in the first part of Hong’s new film, On the Beach at Night Alone, we nevertheless explore landscapes as ways of contextualizing the feelings of the characters. Landscapes become experiential for Kim Min-Hee’s Younghee, a Korean visitor in Hamburg, turning open spaces into locked ones. Younghee prescribes new meanings to old spaces in Hamburg as she comes to terms with a recent but ambiguous relationship back in Korea, yet she also finds a pensive beauty in nature which we, through our pain or heartbreak, may not have perceived otherwise. Visiting a composer who writes songs for children, Younghee is told “These are very simple pieces, but if you go deeper, they are more complicated.” The composer begins to play his piece, and the music carries on into the next set of shots, which exist outside of this sequence. It seems then that the purpose of the sequence was only for that statement and for the music to be performed, as to establish a tone for the moments that follow the same way Younghee established meanings for Hamburg’s landscape.
On The Beach At Night Alone seems almost unequivocally Hong Sang-soo’s most somber work and somehow his most personal, in a oeuvre full of them. It’s almost necessary to be aware of the media circus which surrounded Hong Sang-soo and Kim Min-hee’s affair in 2016 in order to understand what’s perhaps equal parts the most self-reflexive and most emotional of the filmmakers works, almost as though the film was made for the purpose of coping with it. Yet for what it’s worth, the movie also seems equal parts director and actress, investigating each other’s emotions, learning about their motives—an equality between performer and director which I haven’t experienced before in a film. Furthermore, there’s considerably less room for humor in this work than before, almost a confirmation of how earnestly they take each other’s feelings. This seriousness drifts into Hong’s visual sensibility, a silent cinema-like emphasis on the position of bodies, whole emotional tones are communicated purely by the way a person leans on a wall, or sitting up to greet a friend, or kneeling to caress a flower. Within this first section we also have the rarely seen film about the “third” of a love triangle, the ambiguity of not knowing where one stands, the impossibility of knowing what the person one desires is feeling, the liminal space between love and heartbreak and the mysteries of not having closure.
The second part of the film takes us out of Hamburg and back to Korea, and so too does the structure shift—from poetic meditation to objective study. In part one we release interior meanings on exterior spaces, now we enter interior spaces with other people. Love becomes conceptualized within a series of conversations—undoubtedly some of the most gripping cinema I’ll see this year. But although we already know that Younghee’s lover was a movie director, it’s the revelation that Younghee is an actress which this movie shifts from the universal to the personal, and given the context of the real-life events it’s not a particular stretch to figure out who the character of the director is based on. In a 10-minute unbroken take, the link between performer and performance is shattered, and through the disclosure of a surrogate for the director, this becomes full-blown confessional for two people.
It almost pains me to say that there’s nothing else quite like this. A non-romance, where fiction slowly becomes documentary. What does it mean that Younghee awakens on the beach, as though it was a dream? That she walks back into a landscape? These are questions that only the film’s two collaborators can answer, secrets only to be shared between them. For what it’s worth, I think this is Hong Sang-soo’s best film, and perhaps the culmination of a series of films about the ‘self.’ Younghee/Kim Min-Hee asks “Personal stories are so boring. It’s boring to talk about yourself all the time, isn’t it?” And as painful as it is, we got a story about two instead. “I was dreaming.” “Were you?” Whether real or not, Younghee has no choice left but to find solace in landscape.