It was always a possibility that On the Beach at Night Alone, Hong Sang-soo’s latest film, would acknowledge the tabloid controversy surrounding the director’s relationship with the actress Kim Minhee. Premiering in competition at the Berlinale on Thursday, it is the first film of Hong’s to feature the actress since Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), the movie which sparked their affair, and a basic plot synopsis initially suggested that the movie’s arc might mirror the trajectory of their relationship.
But what was staggering to many of the people who saw it at Thursday’s premiere was the directness and fierceness with which Hong confronts the issue dead-on. Known for his evasiveness in interviews, and for populating a universe with film characters distinguished by their own equivocality, Hong's reputation suggested that he could well have ducked the issue altogether, and might have simply continued to steadily produce and release a movie annually about more-or-less the same handful of subjects. That was not the case. The film is bleak and angry, positing an alternate reality in which the pressures of the scandal lead to emotional destitution for both the director and his actress. (The actual details of their current situation are difficult to parse.) In On the Beach at Night Alone, Kim’s character can ultimately only be with her lover in dreams; daily life otherwise is just a banal series of stops-and-starts.
Inevitably, the new film has become bound up with the story of this love affair—among cinephiles, rumors of its atypical production in Hamburg and Korea have circulated for months. Hong’s clear-eyed riposte to those who slathered judgement on his private life is also a brilliant narrative construction, one of his finest and simplest structures. The film is divided into two parts but does not have the same playful and moralistic quality of his previous experiments with the form. It is startlingly straightforward and direct, marching down the path to an ending that suggests the impossibility of a return to intimacy, instead fulfilling the promised solitude of the movie’s title.
We sat down with Hong Sang-soo for a discussion of On the Beach at Night Alone the morning after the new film’s Berlin premiere.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned before that you can usually tell from the level of applause how successful the film is…
HONG SANG-SOO: Yes, we had the premiere yesterday, and the applause was very warm. I don’t know if I am right or not but I think I can feel it.
NOTEBOOK: This is one of three projects that you made in one year. Is that right?
NOTEBOOK: Could you speak about the relationship of those movies and this one?
HONG: I never thought about the relationship between these features. Maybe I told you before, I just decide when I will shoot, I decide the important locations and the important actors. Then I write in the morning when I shoot. I just accept whatever occurs in my mind. Probably reflecting my state of mind during those times, which is quite… complex. So I cannot really pinpoint what the relationship is between these three projects. It is hard to describe. My feeling is actually the better description of the movie, about what I was feeling and what I was thinking during that time.
NOTEBOOK: On the Beach at Night Alone is a very angry film. There are a couple of humorous scenes but generally the mood is very dark and somber.
HONG: It’s okay. [Laughs] Sometimes it is okay to be dark and somber.
NOTEBOOK: Could you speak about the build-up to shooting in Hamburg?
HONG: I was staying in Hamburg and one day I decided to shoot something there. So I brought one cameraman, one recordist, and one assistant, and two actors. And there was a Canadian friend of mine, Mark [Peranson], he helped me in many other things. I knew some things, some shops, some coffee-shops, a bookstore. I went to these places and said, “I’m a filmmaker. Can I shoot here?” It was all the same then. Just like I was shooting in Korea, there was not much difference. In Hamburg, you don’t need to get permits to shoot in the street, unless you do something unusual, blocking the way of traffic, for example. But it was the same as at home in the sense of how long it took to shoot. Two, three weeks? I don’t remember exactly, but not too long.
NOTEBOOK: When we think of Kim Min-hee we think of big productions like The Handmaiden. Whereas here you open at a street stall in Hamburg, and it is very unassuming. There are people looking into the camera in the background of the shots.
HONG: It is a smaller crew. In Korea, I usually work with eight or nine people. I had to save money, so I brought only three.
NOTEBOOK: And the second half had a larger crew as well?
HONG: Yes, eight people, if I remember correctly. That is the usual number of people on my crews: eight, nine, sometimes ten. Usually nine.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel any real differences between a larger and a smaller crew? Does it change anything?
HONG: It’s okay. Not much difference, only if there are people around. If there are more crew, you have to… well, no, there is not much difference. You just have to do a little more.
NOTEBOOK: Given the autobiographical nature of this material, I was curious about how much you worked with Kim Min-hee on her character. Was she involved in any of the development of Younghee on the page or earlier?
HONG: No, it’s just me. I know about [Kim Min-hee] more than other actors. I know her just being herself. I had a lot of things in my mind. What she did, what she said. What I saw from her. It all influenced me. Of course, I cannot distinguish between the things she might have said and the things I wrote and even things I took from other people. What really influenced me was her just being herself, knowing her so well, for making this film.
NOTEBOOK: How has the dynamic changed since Right Now, Wrong Then? Do you give many directions, if at all?
HONG: I usually give very little direction. Maybe I told you before, but I don’t believe in giving a lot of direction to actors. If you write down the right words in the script, then you don’t have to explain or direct a lot. If the script is right, when they read it they understand that when they speak it feels right. And even sometimes they can memorize better because it is natural to them. For me, it is much more important to get the casting right. The right person can mean many things for you, but for me, that person can mean different things. They mean something special for that period of time, for that state of mind. If I choose the right person, and I talk with them, write the right script, the right dialogue, then all I have to do is give them the print out and they can do it. Only when they misinterpret what I wrote down do I correct them. “Oh, no I didn’t mean it like that.” “It’s different intonation, you have to do it like this…” Or sometimes, there is some abstract content in the dialogue, some concepts or ideas that they may not be familiar with. Then I explain beforehand. Or when some things are more important for me, then I explain myself. I tell them: “Each line is important, it should be correct.” But that’s very rare. In terms of quantity of direction, not a lot. For me, the dialogue is more important.
NOTEBOOK: You still write that the morning of the shoot.
HONG: Usually. These days I spend longer writing. Ten years ago, I wrote in two hours and then shot. Nowadays, it takes me four hours, sometimes five hours. So I wake up at 3am, and then I might not finish until 11 o’clock. And the crew are all waiting for me. They have been waiting two or three hours for me to finish. I don’t know why but it takes me longer and longer every time.
NOTEBOOK: Do you start with the scene in mind, or do you just wake up and start from the beginning?
HONG: No, it is everything. If I had material from the day before, I base it on that. The first day of shooting is the most difficult. You really feel in the front of your mind that you have several ways of proceeding. You expend a lot of energy and make mistakes but the second day is easier, then the third day you already know about the structures, sometimes. Then you only think about the connection from the previous scene, and about the scene in question: what do I want to do today? How will I spend my energy? How will I use these actors who are providing me with their time? But the very first day is the hardest. For two hours, I think about this direction, then I write some pages, and then I discard what I have and think about another direction. The first day is very hard. After that, it is okay. At first, I considered using the first part of this film as a short feature on its own. But then I showed it to some people and they liked it. I was thinking either I could either use this as a first part and then continue from there or I can shoot something entirely different and start from the beginning and make an entire feature film. I had to decide, so one or two days before the shooting of the second part, I showed the first part to some people and they encouraged me to go on.
NOTEBOOK: Do many of the scenes you write and shoot get cut out of the movie?
HONG: No, not many. Maybe percentage-wise… more than 95% of what I shoot is used in the film. Less than 5% is cut. These are scenes I shot that were okay technically but when I edit I feel like I don’t need it. I can jump to the next one. Then I discard that material. That happens very rarely. The only time I discarded a large amount of scenes I shot was on Woman is the Future of Man . I discarded ten scenes, I think. I don’t remember exactly, but it was the ending I cut. It was unnecessary. All the other features, it is a very small percentage.
NOTEBOOK: How does writing scenes in the morning relate to ideas of structure, specifically the big structural devices that until now characterized all of your movies?
HONG: That comes on the first day. You have to think about structure and about everything. But you just have to decide. I shoot something after deciding on something on the first day. Then the second day, write something believing that the first idea was right. By the end of that day, I know whether that was true or not. I think it is about the third day I usually know the structure or direction. Then I don’t have to worry too much about it. It’s okay. But you don’t see the big devices in this film?
NOTEBOOK: No, and it goes back to what I was saying about the anger and melancholy that I think are front and center here. Usually the structural devices, like the doubling of Right Now, Wrong Then, are almost a way to subvert the narrative. That isn’t the case here.
HONG: When I made those choices, I didn’t have a reason. I just felt that this was the right direction. But for the sake of explanation, I guess I was more into the personality of this character, her struggle. I identified with the character more than usual, and at the same time I felt that I wasn’t really interested in forms. I didn’t think about forms. I didn’t need to.
NOTEBOOK: I think that’s where the film’s strength comes from. You make so many movies that we have come to expect certain variations on the material. Then when they are not there, it focuses our attention on the emotions in front of us. There is only really the abduction at the end of part one that stands out as a structural red-herring.
HONG: All I can say about these unreal things is that I like Luis Buñuel a lot. I feel good when I watch his films, that much I can say. You know, there is no such thing as reality. We are bound to feel certain things by our circumstances. We work and move around, not really believing in things, just automatically doing them and thinking them based on this false conception of reality. And our feelings follow that because we have done all these things so many times. We feel these sensations, pleasure or pain, so it becomes more real for us. Sometimes, when come across, say, a poetic moment in life, you see things differently from just an everyday setting. You can discover something totally different. You can feel it, but this feeling goes away quickly and you return to that normal state.
I know that reality is something I can never reach out and grab. We are all living under the influence of being human beings, so it is a good thing that it is unattainable. Even though I feel totally lost, even though I feel pain, it’s not real, in a way. Because we feel these things, we tend to believe that this is real. All the people around me say the same thing all the time, so I believe it is real. But it is not real. It’s an imitation. It is so easy to show this point: we know dogs are colorblind, right? So all their life, they see different things to us. There is no such thing as reality. We have to act impulsively most of the time in life, so we don’t have to think about these things. We are trained to react quickly. Sometimes, I am reminding myself that there is a reality that I will never know, that we will never know, that we will never possess. It is a good feeling. It makes you feel free. In that sense, I like surreal moments like this abduction. As a social being, you have to act quickly: you have to answer, you have to go to these places and say these things. You have to act properly. But reality is something you will never get. I’m sorry if I am unclear, I am very tired.