In his latest film On the Beach at Night Alone, Hong Sang-Soo’s writing and direction displays a maturation from his previous work, eschewing somber ambiguity instead for emotional closure. This latter element in combination with self-reflexive topics taken from his own life, demonstrates how Sang-Soo has a nuanced understanding of his own work, further building his own auter brand of cinema on what he himself has previously established. One doesn’t need to have watched Sang-Soo’s previous films to enjoy On the Beach at Night Alone nor follow the real-life drama of Sang-Soo’s life in order to appreciate the film, but, in viewing On the Beach as a new peak for Sang-Soo, his previous films become keys in understanding how the director utilizes his trademark tools in refreshing ways here: the pan, zoom-in, and interior shots used to grasp the interior psychology of his characters, but within the context of the film’s story, done so in a way that culminates in what can be seen as Sang-Soo in conversation with himself and his audience.
The film centers on Young-hee (Kim Min-hee), an actress who had an affair with her director, and her subsequent travels in order to recover. If Sang-Soo’s narratives ever feel adrift then with On the Beach, he punctures that day-dream atmosphere, grounding his characters in a reality where actions must be repented for and mistakes learned from. Young-hee becomes the exemplar here, frequently prostrating herself in nature as if she were seeking forgiveness from sublime landscapes. Her gesture points towards a notable shift in Sang-Soo’s exteriors for this particular film. The first half of On the Beach takes place in Hamburg, Germany where Young-hee has fled to relieve herself from tabloid pressure.
A number of scenes take place outdoors which Sang-Soo emphasizes through the use of wide-shots as opposed to his more conventional zoom-ins where backdrops are erased. In the former movement, characters such as Young-hee aren’t subsumed by their larger surroundings. Instead, like his zoom-ins, Sang-Soo’s choice of outdoor landscapes here call attention to the inner psychology of his characters, specifically Young-hee who feels especially lonely in her desolate Fall surroundings. The juxtaposition of Young-hee’s body against the wider landscape gives her the appearance of being defenseless and vulnerable, shown no better than when she sits in the fetal position on the beach. A passerby warns her to be careful, but Young-hee seems to be somewhere else, taking comfort in her solitude.
By setting the first-half of the film away from South Korea, On the Beach takes on a self-reflexive element. Throughout the film, Young-hee uses nature to ponder on her affair and its aftereffects. With Kim Min-hee playing the lead role, the elements of autobiography aren’t lost. Last year, rumors began circulating that Sang-Soo was having an extra-martial affair with Min-hee. At the Seoul premier of On the Beach earlier in March, Sang-Soo confirmed the rumors to be true. Less interesting are the rumors and gossip and more the ways that Sang-Soo and Min-hee channel elements of their lives into their art-forms and the ensuing result. Young-hee as the protagonist of the film played by Min-hee doesn’t just bring to mind the real-life connections between On the Beach to Sang-Soo’s life, but also the connections between On the Beach to the more than usual masculine-perspective of Sang-Soo’s filmography.
As the writer of his own films, Sang-Soo shows an awareness for the lechery of his male characters but never more than an exchange of drunken chides that are glanced off. This time around, Sang-Soo doesn’t shy away from the drama that explodes over the eventual cup of Soju. Towards the end of the film, Young-hee runs into her ex-lover, simply known as “the Director (Moon Sung-keun)” and joins him alongside his film crew for dinner. Not long into the scene, Young-hee begins to call out the Director for his behavior, questioning why he surrounds himself with younger women and why his films seem to be so boring and personal. Young-hee’s question invites laughter, but Sang-Soo just as quickly transforms the tone from self-deprecating humor into a serious moment of self-reflection.
The Director reveals that he surrounds himself with younger women because they’re “pretty,” and it provides him romantic opportunities. A medium shot initially draws attention to Young-hee and the Director and the two serve to frame the table between them where the tension feels palpable. Sang-Soo then separates the two by way of panning to the speaker, mimicking a shot-reverse-shot. The camera transforms tension into anguish as the spat between the ex-lovers becomes not only the dominant focus of the scene but of the frame, pushing out the rest of the cast and thus removing any elements that this was initially a celebration.
The Director bemoans his regret for having ever loved Young-hee in the first place and despite being twice her age, Young-hee comes across as the wiser of the two: “Don’t regret it. Regretting won’t change anything,” she coolly tells him. In a final bid to explain himself, he quotes a passage from an untitled book about two lovers embroiled in an affair. “Love”, the protagonist describes, “must come from somewhere higher than happiness and unhappiness”. Coming from the Director, the quotation plays out like a cheap excuse for a man to commit infidelity, but he gives the book to Young-hee and therein lies an importance for understanding how Young-hee lives her life.
At the start of the film, Young-hee’s older friend Jeeyoung (Seo Youngwha) asks her what she wants from her life, to which Young-hee responds: “What I want is to live in a way that suits me. To be strong, and whatever happens, to live my own way.” Reckless, but Young-hee’s philosophy gives context to her actions and when viewed in relation to the advice given to her by the Director, functions as a guide on viewing On the Beach and perhaps Sang-Soo’s filmography as a whole. Like the protagonist from the Director’s book, Young-hee lives her life according to what she feels rather than logic. She’s adventurous, bold, and as her friends tell her repeatedly, charming. On the Beach’s narrative operates on a similar whimsical level. A composer Young-hee meets tells her that his piano pieces are simple but should you dig deeper, they grow more complex.
Sang-Soo’s films are equally simple not just in the stories they tell but in how they’re made. The latter element has arguably allowed him to make five films in the past two years. In the case of On the Beach at Night Alone, while an affair is no foreign element to Sang-Soo’s stories, the complexity of the film arises from Sang-Soo’s keen observational skills. Together with Min-hee’s subtle emotional turns, Sang-Soo paints a lyrical portrait of isolation dictated by equally lonely landscapes.