To the cadre of fans who have followed South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s work over the years, he’s best-known for repeating different versions of the same formula: Portraits of chatty, neurotic creative types, usually filmmakers and actors, all of whom usually wind up drinking a lot of Soju and arguing through their problems with alternately funny and insightful results.
More recently, Hong has also been known as one half of a marriage scandal that dominated Korean tabloids more than any of his movies. While the media speculated, the peripatetic filmmaker quietly stuck to his one-film-a-year pace while remaining silent on the topic. Now, he has provided a response in the best terms at his disposal — with a movie. “On the Beach at Night Alone” is a fascinating sublimation of autobiography into Hong’s precise creative terms, a bittersweet character study as poignant, witty and deceptively slight as much of his work that also refurbishes it with a unique personal dimension.
A brief recap of the events hovering just outside the frame: After his brilliant 2015 effort “Right Now, Wrong Then,” which told the same story twice with nuanced differences, Hong apparently had an extramarital affair with star Kim Min-hee — most recently seen as part of the lesbian espionage thriller “The Handmaiden,” a box office smash in Korea. While Hong’s wife told journalists she was waiting for him to come home, the director apparently fled the spotlight with his new partner, spending time in America and elsewhere while cooking up other projects. Then came news that the pair had split up, but stayed friends, and “On the Beach at Night Alone” is probably as close as we’ll come to a joint statement from both of them about the aftermath.
“On the Beach at Night Alone” follows Kim as actress named Younghee, but other than her name, it’s pretty clear that she’s riffing on her own experience. As the movie begins, Younghee has fled Seoul for Hamburg, getting away from headlines about her affair with — you guessed it — a famous director. As she wanders the alien city (introducing some enjoyable gags about language barriers that echo Hong’s Isabelle Huppert vehicle “In Another Country”), she finds herself at odds with her surroundings and lost in thought, telling one friend that she feels “even more lonely in a beautiful landscape.” Per usual, Hong’s camera just sits there and watches this wayward character ramble on about her mindset (tossing in the occasional zoom to accentuate her expressions), while the details surrounding her history with the filmmaker remain shrouded in mystery.
Instead, Hong drops in clues to the nature of her conundrum in her recurring complaints about the opposite sex. “Men here are kind,” she asserts in Germany, but later concludes that “men all want the same thing,” and then pegs herself as a “strange, male-obsessed woman.” American audiences may recognize this type of crisis of confidence from various feminist-leaning television shows, but they’re particularly intriguing filtered through Younghee’s perspective as a stranger in a strange land, irrespective of the real-life parallels informing her situation.
But it turns out these ambling pontifications are just a prelude to later scenes, when Younghee resurfaces in her native territory to face her gossipy friends and, eventually, the filmmaker himself, in a series of chatty encounters that maintain a coyly erratic tone that shifts between humor and wistfulness in that precise Hong-like way.
Younghee’s ready to confront her old world with a freshly rebellious mindset, and a scene in which she drunkenly makes out with her friend over dinner while the other guests watch with mystified expressions ranks as one of the filmmaker’s great comic set pieces. Later, when she finds herself face to face with the former object of her affection, the ensuing showdown has the underpinnings of a profound, intimate tragedy. Like so many Hong characters, Younghee struggles to formulate her feelings, but whenever she wanders off-screen, others do the work for her.
Contemplating the tabloid scandal that haunts her career, one friend asks, “Why such a fuss?” The response from a companion: “People have nothing better to do.” The director couldn’t be more explicit about that message, and yet “On the Beach at Night Alone” provides a sobering response to speculation about his love life: Here’s what that fuss does to people. It’s the arthouse variation of Beyonce and Jay-Z working through their problems in “Lemonade” or Brangelina exhibiting their turmoil in the lavish hotel room setting of “By the Sea.” Hong uses the medium at his disposal less to set the record straight than to explain it in personal terms.
Naturally, many of these developments take place in the context of a tableau that should generate cheers of recognition from Hong fans whenever a new one begins: His characters sit around a long table, surrounded by half-empty bottles and slurring their way towards inelegant epiphanies. The director revels in these sequences with slight variations each time out, like improvisatory drum solos he mastered long ago. “On the Beach at Night Alone” ranks as a completely satisfying Hong set for anyone eager to get their fix.
Of course, that also means it exists in an echo chamber, but Hong’s aesthetic has always catered to an inside-baseball mentality. One set of cameos, by Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson and his wife, furthers the perception that the movie doesn’t just live within the confines of Hong’s insular universe; it’s a product of the world that hoists him up, and a natural mirror for him to explain the drama that has recently enshrouded his career.
There’s nothing jarring about the structural gimmickry here — the story relaunches 20 minutes in, with a new set of credits, announcing Younghee’s return to Korea — but it’s a subtle maneuver that doesn’t offset the balance of the central narrative. In its quiet, pensive manner, the movie plays like a cogent stanza in the ever-flowing lyricism of Hong’s career. Appropriately, the title cribs from an introspective Walt Whitman poem about contemplating the wonders of the world. That process is largely implied, on multiple occasions, when Younghee literally finds herself alone on the beach and gazing out at the empty waves. In her final moment there, it’s not clear if we’re watching a real situation or the aftermath of a dream, but Hong’s confidence in that ambiguity is clear. Whatever the details of his romance, it’s comforting to find that it has only managed to fuel his ever-reliable talent.
“On the Beach at Night Alone” premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.