Hong Sang-soo Notarized: On the Beach at Night Alone

English Title: On the Beach at Night Alone
Korean Title: 밤의 해변에서 혼자/Bamui Haebyeoneseo Honja
Premiere Date: February 16, 2017
U.S. Release Year: 2017
Festival: Berlin (Best Actress)
Film Number: 19
First Viewing Number: 10
First Viewing Date: October 12, 2017
Viewing Number: 3
Ranking (at beginning of run): 6
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 22
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 11
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 6
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 101 minutes (10th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Two marked unequal parts
Recurring Actors: Seo Young-hwa (sixth appearance), Moon Sung-keun (fifth appearance), Song Seon-mi (third appearance), Kwon Hae-hyo (third appearance), Jeong Jae-yeong (third appearance), Ahn Jae-hong (third appearance), Han Jai (third appearance), Shin Sun (third appearance), Kim Min-hee (second appearance), Gong Min-jeong (second appearance), Mark Peranson (first appearance), Park Ye-ju (first appearance), Kang Ta-eu (first appearance)
Season: Winter
Weather: Cloudy, sunny
Alcohol: Max and Cass beer, makgeolli, soju, red wine
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, water, tea
Food: Tomato pasta, sausages, tuna kimbap, apple, Spam, rice porridge, yogurt, chips, shrimp, seafood
Drinking Scenes: 5
Creative People: Film actress, director, assistant directors, script supervisor, production staff, programmer
Academia: N/A
Vacation: 1
Dream Sequences: 1
Film Screening: 1 (off-screen)
Films Within Films: 0-1
Q&A: N/A
Naps: 2
Family: N/A
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: 1
Number of Shots: 53
Number of Zooms: 20 out, 14 in
Music Style: String Quintet (Schubert), electric piano pieces, sung Korean song
Title Background: Black background (outline and ball in Jeonwonsa logo)
Voiceover: N/A

In the interviews I’ve read/watched with Hong, he’s consistently stressed that his films are not meant to be considered autobiographical; I’m paraphrasing here but while they may incorporate elements from his life, they aren’t, strictly speaking, things that happened to him. The more I watch his films, the more I agree with him, a sentiment that now even extends to what’s widely considered his most directly autobiographical film, On the Beach at Night Alone, which is also one of his most popular; notably it’s the only other one of his films to be released to US theaters the same year it premiered, helped by both Kim (hot off The Handmaiden) and the early Berlin premiere date. Made after it was revealed that Hong and Kim Min-hee were having an affair, something which they amazingly acknowledged at the Seoul premiere of the film, its plot would seem to be literally based on what happened to them. But as far as I know, Kim didn’t flee to Hamburg and Hong didn’t have a breakdown, and of course they’re still happily together to this day. What makes the film among Hong’s most affecting lies deeper than just its passing resemblance to reality; if it’s personal, it’s in a way that reflects artistic sensibilities rather than a reflection of the circumstances, in his typical fashion.

Evan and I have talked about a certain muted quality that Hong’s films have taken in the Kim era, and indeed On the Beach at Night Alone leans into the feeling of much of the second of Right Now, Wrong Then had, a general state of continuous contemplation and assessment. While there are two clearly marked parts, with distinct cast credits like Oki’s Movie sans part titles, the two share a similar floating feeling, something more ghostly than other Hongs have actively sought in the past. Kim’s presence is totally felt, to be sure, but by design Young-hee is as drifting as any Hong protagonist, someone unsure of her place in the wake of this shattering event.

I had completely forgotten that On the Beach at Night Alone opens with a fade-in into a close-up of Kim’s head from behind, a startlingly direct touch and focus on a person that is at once warranted and slightly misleading. As I’ve tracked the molds that Hong has formed around his most common actors, I’ve almost come to realize that Kim is in some ways the perfect amalgam of all his protagonists to date, precisely because of her ability to be chameleonic while still maintaining her stable presence. As such, she seems equally able to hold the screen on her own and to cede room for her co-stars, to redirect focus like she’s bending light, and Hong is there to help decide when to do that.

That quality is on display throughout On the Beach at Night Alone; even though there are supporting characters that are more prominent — Jee-young, Jun-hee, Chun-woo, Sang-won — the film acts as more of a carousel of characters who show up, make an impression, than leave than basically any Hong to date. The only true stable center is Young-hee, who, while she remains front and center, is as much a spectator to all these other dramas going on (especially in the second part) as she is an active participant in her own personal struggles. Crucially, while those struggles are catalyzed specifically from the publicity of her affair, her focus is not on fretting over the problems of the past, but instead looking forward: whether she can reunite with her lover, whether she can resolve what she wants, whether she can live life in a way that suits her; the prayer at the bridge reminds me both of Woman on the Beach and Oki’s Movie in the latter’s focus on a bridge as something of a hallowed place.

While the natural inference is to assume that this is merely a two-part linear plot, with the gap between the first and second part an indefinite interval during her stay in Hamburg. But I’ve always been equally compelled by the idea that the first part of On the Beach at Night Alone is a film-within-the-film, or perhaps what Young-hee is thinking about as she watches the film that ends in the first scene of the second part. Notably, nothing about Young-hee being an actress who had an affair with a director is mentioned in the first part, and I don’t think there’s mention of leaving specifically because of publicity instead of just being fed up with Seoul and South Korea. Likewise, the place where Young-hee went abroad is never mentioned, though I also think that I only know it’s Hamburg because I’ve read about it; the Germany connection appears again regardless though, and the discussion about (presumably) German men takes place in a much more positive light compared to Woman on the Beach.

Hong seems especially captivated by the pictorial quality of Hamburg; a few shots begin with just landscape (the Planetarium and the beach), then with the characters walking through the frame, then holding a little longer on the landscape before cutting away, a void that’s only truly matched by a shot zooming in on the waves in Gangneung. I often think about the set diary that Mark Peranson — the editor of Cinema Scope, who hilariously appears in multiple Hong films — wrote which is in the Cinema Guild Blu-ray; he talked about how Hong seemed to be figuring out this film on the fly even more than usual. There’s even at least one scene which he shot and ended up not using, of Kim wandering around the stalls in the market for something like ten minutes, which I’ve always wanted to see.

I always associate Seo Young-hwa first with Jee-young, and she’s always been one of Kim’s most potent on-screen partners; her recessiveness plays off well against Kim’s unpredictability, and this first section is virtually all them aside from their encounters with the bookseller and Paul and Lillian — Bettina Steinbrügge, art museum curator and Peranson’s partner; that is, or at least was their actual apartment in Hamburg, La Chinoise poster and all. Indeed, I think I also heard from Peranson that Karl Feder, who plays the bookseller/children’s music composer, was an actual bookseller (the outside book stand reminds me of Nobody’s Daughter Haewon) who did die of cancer sometime after filming; his assertion that the simple pieces become more complicated when you go deeper is certainly something of a Hongian mission statement. There is, then, a sort of sense that the first part, in another country, functions more akin to documentary, while the second steps back into the more traditional Hong narrative formulations. The overlaying of played music, by both Young-hee and the bookseller, onto the following few shots fits more into Hong’s approach than I had realized — he does the same with the folk song in Our Sunhi — though it’s not terribly common.

It’s probably best to talk about the mysterious man — played by Park Hong-yeol, who shot almost all of Hong’s films from Hahaha to the first part of On the Beach at Night Alone — at this time. In the first part, he’s simply an irritant, pursuing the women across grassy fields to ask for the time, at least before the final scene. During, the second part he seems almost implicitly associated with Chun-woo, only appearing twice on the balcony, with both shots he’s featured in (even the vigorous window-wiping one) ending with Chun-woo alone in the hotel room living room. Though it’s the only time that Hong used as a singular figure as a focal point for his surrealism, I don’t tend to dwell on him as much as some, if only because he seems to reflect the action more than try to directly interfere with it; him carrying Young-hee off could simply be a visualization of herself walking off as she does at the end of the film, and likewise him fluidly opening the window screen could be Young-hee opening it herself. I don’t mean to say that he carries no significance at all, but to assign a specific metaphorical role to him like death or the media or Sang-won feels a bit too constricting for Hong.

While such exterior forces aren’t very present in On the Beach at Night Alone, concerns over aging and the passage of time very much are. Especially in the second half, people keep commenting about how Young-hee seems to have matured — indeed, maybe it’s just her acting but she does appear more reserved in the second part — and there’s constant talk about how people have gotten older, Chun-woo seems like he’s gotten younger, and how people just generally feel tired. In both Myung-soo and Paul’s cases, people talk about how these kind-hearted men have been worn-down by the women they’re with. This is a thread that crops up earlier than I remembered in Hong, and which is especially prevalent in the Kim films; especially after the relative youthfulness of Yourself and Yours, it comes as a surprise.

There’s also a little more rhyming across the two parts than I remembered, not just in the two couples with subservient/worn-down men or the visits to the beaches. Jee-young mentions that Hamburg is the #1 city that people want to live; Chun-woo proclaims that Gangneung is probably the prettiest city in Korea. Two shots that especially stand out are of Kim exiting a restroom, a moment held like with the landscape shots and which implicitly sets her apart from the food preparation and conversations going on.

Hong has held on conversations between non-main characters before, but I don’t think he’s done it to he has here. The brief exchange between Paul and Lillian about how far the beach is, the poem recitation between Myung-soo and Chun-woo, the absurdly cute scene between the production staff member — Ahn Jae-hong, who’s carved out a nice place for himself in Hong’s universe of being a background character — and the script supervisor as they decide to get Sang-won’s book together; all of these act as essentially continuations of a world that exists outside of Young-hee’s point of view. Of course, these events are all triggered in some way by her presence, and Kim’s vitality is crucial to making her central even as these other people take the spotlight temporarily. The greatest example of this is between Myung-soo and Do-hee as she berates him for not getting to work in the coffee shop. After Young-hee leaves, the conversation continues for another minute and a half, eventually segueing into more mundane conversation about what to eat as the camera zooms in on Myung-soo patiently sorting coffee beans. Jeong Jae-young, in his third and final Hong appearance, fits this role perfectly, passive and tired but kind in his own way, and it has the extra meta-textual resonance of his role in Right Now, Wrong Then; he gets a lovely final shot where he’s smoking alone, out in the cold as Young-hee and Jun-hee go back inside.

I’ve always loved the five-way drinking scene that lasts for eleven minutes and goes through so many dynamics. It begins with the idea of survival and death, and a certain graciousness of death, before moving into Young-hee haranguing her friends and issuing the immortal quote “none of you are qualified to love.” Then, just as unexpectedly, the first true moment of potential queerness arrives with Young-hee and Jun-hee — Song Seon-mi, another key Kim co-star — kissing, which inspires Do-hee to kiss Myung-soo. Of course, this leaves Chun-woo alone, a role truly built for Kwon Hae-hyo’s hangdog expression, which is eventually taken in good humor by all. I’m always struck anew how well it captures the feeling that, even though Young-hee’s been separated from her friends and initially doesn’t seem to remember aspects of them — again the possibility of this being an alternate Young-hee floated to my mind from the previous film — she once again has the possibility of returning from an abyss of isolation and destruction. Crucially, they have basically all fled Seoul to Gangneung, a rejection of the city and its societal expectations, and, along with Jee-young’s own flight to Hamburg, providing alternate possibilities of living to Young-hee. The extended section with Jun-hee and Chun-woo as they hang around in the hotel room underscores this, a lingering of the communal feeling that becomes a tangible possibility.

Before getting to the ending proper, the three performances (five if you count the piano playing) form something of an intriguing place in On the Beach at Night Alone, which potentially ties into the Walt Whitman poem that probably provided Hong the title. Young-hee’s song that she sings softly to herself outside; the poem that Myung-soo and Chun-woo recite together that’s apparently on the restaurant’s wall; the book passage that Sang-won reads to Young-hee; they all together seem to almost freeze the film, a state of deliberate reflectiveness that otherwise heightens what’s ambient otherwise, as in the shot of Young-hee patting the cabbage. They are little, privileged moments of appreciation that help typify what makes the film so special and strange to me.

The final act of On the Beach at Night Alone is another extended dream functioning much the same as Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. To cap it off, Moon Sung-keun returns for his final of six Hong appearances; just as Youn Yuh-jung appeared as Kim’s mom to pass the torch from the Jung Yu-mi era, so does Moon appear to reprise something of his past roles stretching back to Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and of course much of the Jung era. What makes this feel different is how much Young-hee shifts through, confidence to self-loathing to laughing along to stoicism in the face of Sang-won’s tears. One could certainly read the self-portrait coming to a head here: Sang-won’s process of starting with the experience of a person he’s loved and not setting anything in advance sounds mightily similar to Hong’s, and Young-hee’s accusations of personal stories being boring and him trying to lessen his torment probably aren’t far from criticisms of Hong. But then again, that book reading casts things in a new light, placing a different lens of artistic reflection on the situation; the inscrutability of Kim’s gaze, both appreciative and accusatory as she gets up to leave, is something to behold.

The ending of course hearkens back to both Woman on the Beach and Like You Know It All; the incredibly moving use of Schubert’s String Quintet reminds me most oddly of Night and Day. But if there’s still a certain ambiguity to Young-hee’s ultimate resolution at the end of On the Beach at Night Alone, it’s created through an internal approach that pulls from and reflects the people that she’s interacted with, in both reality and dreams. The shot of her framed against the sky as she talks to (possibly) the assistant director off camera is as iconic (in the classical sense) as anything Hong has done, and there’s a greater sense that whatever inner peace she’s achieved has been done on her terms. By meeting with all these people and recentering her perspective, she’s able to move forth into the future on her own.

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