A melancholy air blows through every haunted frame of Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone, and it’s a feeling wholly appropriate to evoking the headspace of its main character, Young-hee (Kim Min-hee). A former actress currently taking a professional break after an affair with a married filmmaker ended badly, Young-hee is seen in the film’s first part wandering around Hamburg with an older friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), talking about their romantic desires and regrets with remarkable frankness. And the second part sees Young-hee meeting with various friends back in her home city of Gangneung, in a series of scenes which reveal the character’s volatile mix of burning resentment and brutal self-awareness.
Much of the fascination of Hong’s latest lies in seeing Young-hee, in these two different settings, internally trying to work out a way to move on from her heartbreak. At one point in the film’s Hamburg-set first half, she expresses her desire to try to live more honestly, a resolution that helps to explain the moments, back in Gangneung, that see her drunkenly lashing out at others, calling all men idiots, and declaring that no one around her truly deserves love. But clearly she still has feelings for Sang-won (Moon Sung-Keun), though she expresses this only through unexpected, often private gestures: a mournful song she sings to herself in front of a coffee shop; a loving embrace of a flower she notices outside the building across from said shop.
Hong presents all of this in touchingly direct fashion, dialing down on his usual quick zooms and only occasionally indulging in notes that recall the more playfully ambiguous register of his recent work: a possibly imaginary window washer in the film’s second half who looks very much like the mysterious man who carries Young-hee off of a beach at the end of the first half; a lengthy sequence that’s suddenly revealed to be a character’s dream. In On the Beach at Night Alone, it’s the examination of Young-hee’s fragile psychological state that’s Hong’s main artistic priority—one that he carries out with his usual unsparing empathy and brutal honesty.
There’s an extra-textual layer to the film’s wistful register. With Hong and Kim embroiled in a highly publicized scandal last year over the director carrying on an extramarital affair with the actress that led to the breakup of his marriage, and with subsequent reports claiming that they’d ended their affair, On the Beach at Night Alone could be read as Hong’s public response to the scandal. If seen in that light, the film acquires an extra layer of confessional poignancy, with Hong showing less of an interest in defending his actions than in laying bare the anguish of his soul, and that of his leading lady.
Thus, Young-hee’s occasional angry outbursts can also be understood as Kim’s own attempts to lash out at Hong for perceived mistreatment. And in a climactic scene in which Young-hee confronts Sang-won directly, one could interpret the man’s needy macho egotism as Hong’s own self-lacerating attempt to implicate himself in the personal troubles he’s currently involved in. The beauty of Hong’s latest, though, lies in how piercingly affecting it feels even if one isn’t aware of the personal circumstances surrounding it.
Berlinale runs from February 9—17.