Insightful, cruel and tactless in equal measure, ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE could be one of Hong Sang-soo's finest works,
A new year has arrived and with it the challenge of reviewing a new work from Korea's arthouse darling Hong Sang-soo. On the Beach at Night Alone, which borrows its name from the title of a Walt Whitman poem and premieres at the Berlin International Film Festival, his third time there in competition after Night and Day and Nobody's Daughter Haewon, certainly does not depart in any significant way from the stylings and themes of his body of work to date.
What has changed and gives this work a bitter edge not seen since 2009's Like You Know It All is a frankness that conflates the fictions of his work and his personal life to a much stronger degree than usual, yet many viewers, particularly in Korea, may not look kindly on the latest from a director who has spent much of the last eight months in the news for his personal affairs.
On the Beach at Night Alone, which will bring us to two beaches during its running time, but neither at night, begins in Hamburg, where a Korean woman is spending time with a friend as she waits for her lover, a married man, to join her. The second part of the film, which takes up the lion's share of the narrative, sees this woman (presumably the same one, but Hong likes to sow the seeds of doubt, as he did in last year's Yourself and Yours) return to Korea and meet up with old friends in Gangneug, a sleepy beachside town. We then learn that she is an actress and her affair, with a director she has worked with in the past, seems to have ended.
A review isn't normally a place to indulge in gossip, but Hong's new work is a very special case, so a little background info seems necessary. The director and his star Kim Min-hee have reportedly been in a relationship since they made Right Now, Wrong Then and the news reached the public last summer, months after they had filmed On the Beach at Night Alone. The reaction has been brutal and Hong is currently going through divorce proceedings with his wife.
Korea is still a conservative society, where until two years ago adultery was still a jailable offense. Netizens (the Korean version of keyboard warriors) have gleefully raked the pair over the coals, particularly Kim, which has forced them out of the public eye. On the Beach at Night Alone tackles their affair head on, and presumes that the public is going to find out. Kim's character seems to be in hiding in Germany and despite her desires to stay there, it is inferred that she is forced to return to her homeland. There, her friends prod her about her relationship and tell her she won't be able to get work as an actress anymore.
The film's honesty is intriguing but also poses a conundrum. Is the transparency the result of bravery? Kim has willingly taken on a role that will lay her open to a mountain of criticism, but her courage will just as easily be labeled as recklessness. On the other hand, Hong is also laying himself bare, at least in part, but his honesty feels more belligerent, and taken with his dark humor it becomes a weapon against society.
Hong's use of Kim in the lead role is another area that opens up questions and will be off-putting to some. The gaze of his camera is on occasion tender, notably when Kim sings outside a cafe while smoking a cigarette, but the film also gives off an uncomfortable feeling of exploitation, such as when Kim participates in an unusual kiss. Spectators will have to decide for themselves if Hong's viewpoint inspires candor or is merely merciless.
Regardless of how one approaches Hong's latest from a moral standpoint, it's hard to deny the film's artistry. Several memorable metaphors crop up throughout the narrative and some of the exchanges, particularly a confrontation towards the end, burrow themselves under your skin.
Insightful, cruel and tactless in equal measure, On the Beach at Night Alone could be one of Hong's finest works, but it may also be the one that leads several viewers to swear off the filmmaker once and for all.