Hong Sang-soo is one of those filmmakers that can really get under people’s skin. As with his contemporary Kim Ki-duk, his films are often highly appreciated by foreign audiences and heavily criticized at home in Korea. His latest, On the Beach at Night Alone, is no different, but for reasons you might not expect. Freakishly similar to the story of his latest film, lead actress Kim Min-hee and director Hong have been caught up in a bit of an extra-marital affair scandal of their own dating back to just before the release of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, also starring Kim, which stirred up a lot of moral outrage among a population that holds its celebrities to an extremely high standard of conduct. So together, Kim and Hong have gone out and made a film that has become somewhat of a response piece (almost a big middle finger) to all the critics of their behavior and it has grown a special life of its own in that respect. Nonetheless, Kim Min-hee’s undeniable force as an actress seems to have been strong enough to withstand the outrage, and she has managed to find a way to elevate her acting skills to even new heights.
The story is quite simple and told in two main parts. In part one, the film opens with Younghee (Kim Min-hee) traveling abroad to Hamburg where she visits a friend (Seo Younghwa) as she waits for her lover to also fly in and meet her somewhere in the city. When he doesn’t show up, the two continue to talk about life and love as they walk around the park and meet some locals. Younghee seems to be searching for something new and curiously ponders restarting her life abroad. There are also some very realistic scenes of Younghee bravely using her limited English skills to communicate with some local residents that come off as brilliantly awkward and funny.
Part two takes place back in Korea in a town on the east coast named Gangneung. There, she visits some old friends (Jung Jaeyoung and Kwon Haehyo) from what may have been her university days. Part 2 is where the film really kicks off and we learn about the affair Younghee had with a film director that has uprooted her career. Both Jung Jaeyoung and Kwon Haehyo are quite hilarious in both their performances and dialogue. (NOTE: a lot of the subtle humor in Hong’s films come from the dialogue which is not easily translatable through subtitles. For example, there are different levels of polite speech and various ways to address people in Korean that can depend on the other person’s relationship to you that do not come across in the translation, when actually there is an underlying frankness, comfort, or even rudeness implied based on the speech pattern. This is near impossible to avoid even with the best translators.) There are two big soju drinking scenes in part two that become the highlights of the film. The alcohol really gets to Younghee and she is able to philosophize on love freely and forcefully expresses her state of mind. It is in these scenes you realize why she earned the best actress prize at Berlin International Film Festival this year.
In typical Hong Sang-soo fashion, single take conversations in cafes, on park benches, smoking from balconies, and soju drinking are all here. The most exciting camera tricks come in the form of simple pans and zooms that can be a welcome break to the constant deadpan of the camera. This stationary and long-take style of filmmaking can test the patience of those used to the typical dynamic style of editing together a conversation we are so used to in movies today. But in a Hong Sang-soo film, there are no close-up shots of the actors’ faces to be cut back-and-forth to as they exchange their lines of dialogue. Everything is in a two-shot or a wide-shot and shown in one long take. Depending on the viewer, the resulting effect can be either refreshing or frustrating. For me, I love to see the actors do their work in long takes and watch the conversations unfold along with the performances. In the group-shots, especially the drinking ones, every actor has something going on and you can easily find new aspects in the nuances of their performances each time you watch. There is simply too much going on to take in all of the (often humorous) subtleties in one go.
Director Hong has often incorporated his life into his work, but On the Beach at Night Alone seems to be one that blurs the line between fiction and reality the most. Without knowing of the scandal, this would be just another excellent work in Hong’s filmography. But the knowledge of the uproar surrounding the scandal and then watching the film does add an undeniable extra effect to the film. The audience I saw it with seemed to embrace that unique aspect making for an even more enjoyable viewing. Kim Min-hee proves she is one of the best actors working today and this film couldn’t be a better showcase for her amazing talents. I thoroughly enjoyed On the Beach at Night Alone and would highly recommend it to anyone willing to give it a chance!
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