On The Beach At Night Alone (Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja)

Korea (2017) Dir. Hong Sang-soo 

I’m starting to wonder if I am a glutton for punishment in continuing to watch films by Hong Sang-soo as recently have offered diminishing returns for my tastes, yet for my sins, I keep hoping maybe Hong has recaptured the form that drew me to him a decade ago.

Once again, Hong looks to his own experiences for his plot, but there is a bitter edge to this one for reasons we’ll discuss later. Separated into two parts, the central protagonist, actress Young-hee (Kim Min-hee), is in Germany visiting a friend Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa) to clear her head following the end of an affair with a married director. Young-hee insists she is over him but spends her time wondering if he misses her as she does him.

Then in part two, Young-hee returns to the small coastal town of Gangneung, giving Seoul a wide berth where her affair remains a hot topic. Still confused about where her life is going, Young-hee meets up with old friends, eventually leading to a testy confrontation with her estranged lover Sang-won (Sung-keun Moon).

In 1916, legendary director D.W. Griffith was so incensed by the negative reception to his controversial 1915 epic Birth Of A Nation he made Intolerance as his response to his critics. In some ways, On The Beach At Night Alone – lifted from the title of a poem by American poet Walt Whitman – feels like Hong’s version of Intolerance in the wake of his much-publicised affair with Kim Min-hee.

Littered with borderline self-pitying but passive aggressive prolix dialogue on the subject of love being a crime, it is hard to shake the notion Hong won’t apologise for the affair and is trying too hard to marginalise it. In Korea, adultery was a jailable offence up until a couple of years ago so maybe Hong is right to be defensive but there is also a danger in baiting your critics.

As usual, Hong heaps a pile of ambiguity on his narrative, making all of his characters hard to like, suffusing the stories with bursts of surrealism and twists on reality putting his noted meta approach on a confusing plane. For example, the first part of the film ends with Young-hee being carried away from a beach in Hamburg by a stranger then, taking a cue from Hong’s own Tale Of Cinema, the inference of the cut to Young-hee in an empty cinema is that she might have watched everything we just saw as a film.

Hong extends this ambiguity to the film’s finale, again set on a beach (but not at night) suggesting that the preceding events might have been a dream. Anyone familiar with Hong will know he doesn’t spoon-feed his audience, so if anyone feels this is a frustrating lack of closure, he will be just as content with this as he would those who find this to be enigmatically obtuse.

The opening portion of the film is sparse and frankly, quite dreary, featuring Young-hee and Jee-young as they navigate their way through a sleepy locale in Hamburg that is not too dissimilar to the low-key locations in Hong’s Korean based films. Jee-young had left Korea after her marriage ended and found herself wanting to stay on, but Young-hee clearly isn’t ready to make that definitive move, and Jee-young can’t seem to persuade her otherwise.

Back in Korea and Young-hee shares a drink or ten with old friends who have also found Seoul a difficult place to live and work. Sharing her diet of cigarettes and booze (i.e the diet of every Hong character ever), the group hold a reunion dinner which descends into awkwardness as a squiffy Young-hee sounds off about people not being “qualified” to love, lashing out at the men, and kissing one of the woman.

For someone who claims she doesn’t drink, Young-hee can’t half put it away but the outcome is that it brings out her mean side, and her otherwise quiet insecurities are supplanted by vitriolic rants and personal attacks, but is she actually projecting her own flaws and weaknesses on the others instead? Young-hee plays the victim, not of her actions but of the conventions of society demonising her as a scarlet woman and Sang-won for being able to move on so easily. Or has he?

It is interesting that again it is Young-hee who is the one to make a stand and offer an unapologetic retaliation for their affair and the scandal it caused, Sang-won keeping his head down by basically agreeing with her, throwing the odd flattering platitude her way and revealing a downturn in his health after the relationship ended. This does question whether there is a genuine need for remorse in this scenario and Sang-won’s partially contrite stance feels like a wry token gesture to get everyone off Hong and Kim’s backs.

Kim Min-hee is in a curious place at the moment because of this affair. She was on the cusp of major international stardom following her lead role in Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden but hooking up with Hong meant the pair had to temporarily disappear into exile and now, Kim is effectively limited to working for Hong until the scandal dies down, if it ever does.

Even with Young-hee being an easily defensive and uncertain character, this is Kim laying herself bare as a woman feeling like a whipping post for the judgemental attitudes of others, whilst beating herself up emotionally inside. Hong putting these words into Young-hee’s mouth whilst making Sang-won look weak might not diffuse any dissenting opinion against the couple but one has to admire his gumption in not being bowed to it.

On The Beach At Night Alone is a ballsy film and maybe one Hong needed to make. I personally don’t think it is his best nor is it his worst, but its substance is less accessible and certainly less charming due to the anger and caustic intent driving it.