Canon Entry - On the Beach at Night Alone (2017)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
When I first heard about this film, I did not want to see it. Hong Sang-Soo and Kim Min-hee had started an affair on the set of one of Hong’s films Right Now, Wrong Then. It was ugly. He broke off his marriage with his wife with whom he had a college-aged daughter and refused to support his family. On top of all this, there was an age difference of over twenty years between the two. It’s always questionable when a man in power is in a relationship with a younger woman who worked under him. I even had heard offhand that there was a line in this film that Kim Min-hee says about how she is no longer attracted to younger guys (Kim was known to date young, handsome men).
I still think that even if the people who make a work of art do reprehensible deeds, it does not mean that their creations should be ignored. And something still pulled me to the film, which seems intensely autobiographical. Kim Min-hee plays Young-hee, an actress who has retreated from the public eye after an affair with a director scandalizes her. She goes to Germany for a while to visit an expatriate friend, and then back to Korea to hang out with some old colleagues. During her stays in both countries, she has conversations and the emotional outburst or two. And that’s it. Already we should know that we are meant to look beyond this paper-thin plot to see what Hong is really interested in.
I had seen a handful of Hong’s films before and had been lukewarm on most of them and genuinely delighted by one of them (In Another Country with Isabelle Huppert at the center). At first, I couldn’t get past the seeming homogeneousness of his work. His films usually focus on an artist of some kind, usually a director, who is struggling with some personal or professional crisis. He tries to find validation and meaning through sex, alcohol, or a combination of both, but more often than not, he just ends up in an even deeper spiritual malaise. Hong’s films are so insistently similar that you learn his patterns quickly. You know that even if you don’t catch the nuances of a story he tells, he will repeat the story from a slightly different viewpoint. You can always expect a huge fight whenever a meal is portrayed.
Perhaps the main reason that I immediately loved this film as well as In Another Country was that the focus was on the women. In most of Hong’s films, men and their professional, emotional and personal struggles are front and center. Hong is so good at tearing apart the facade of toxic masculinity that permeates Korean culture. He should get credit for this because relatively few male filmmakers, and especially Korean filmmakers, think that masculinity and its worst excesses are worthy subjects for a film. He does it so well that if any other male Korean filmmaker tried making a film about the same subject, it would seem shallow and perhaps derivative.
Even though most of his films tend to center around men, the women are often the most memorable characters. Honestly, most of the male protagonists are interchangeable in that they share many of the same characteristics and flaws. And while it’s true that women are usually important only in their relation to the men in his films, it’s rare that a woman is entirely passive. They are often the most perceptive and can see right through the male protagonists. Even when they give in to men’s charms, they are often the more dominant one in the relationship. Sometimes, they even take over the narrative. In Oki’s Movie, Oki examines the roles of two men in her life and makes sharp observations about the two men’s similarities, despite the vast age gaps, all the while, playing with cinematic form. In Another Country is supposed to be the musings of a young aspiring female screenwriter, and Isabelle Huppert in that film subtly and cleverly plays variations on her character depending on what story she is in.
And then there is Kim Min-hee, in my opinion, the best of Hong’s women. It is clear from this film that she is far from just a muse but a creator as well. I have spoken before about how actors are often underrated by cinephiles because film criticism is so auteur-driven. But there are so many times when a great performance has elevated what would have been a mediocre movie otherwise. And it is clear that this is a performance. Even though Kim is 5’7”(170 cm), she slouches and often appears diminutive even next to people who are shorter than she is. As Young-hee, she appears so tightly wound and emotionally fragile that it is almost a relief when she goes off on her colleagues about the qualifications for love and how they all lack the proper qualifications.
Clearly, Hong and Kim worked closely together on this film to examine how their relationship had been exposed to the fierce scrutiny of the Korean media. It is clear that they know exactly how they look to outsiders and that they are not unaffected by it. In an extended dream sequence, both Younghee and the director (played by Moon Sung-keun, a Hong Sang-Soo regular) tear at each other and themselves in full view of an awkwardly silent public, a nice metaphor for Hong and Kim’s own relationship.
It is best to see this film and Hong’s other films as dramas of introspection. You have to expect that characters will go through seemingly petty struggles and come off as unlikeable. There is room for this type of cinema because this is exactly what happens in real life. While Hong’s films can have stunning images and graceful, classical compositions, his cinematography almost always serves the performances of his actors. For example, one of Hong’s favorite compositions is to put the two actors in the middle of the frame but angle them slightly differently. He does this to show the subtle relationships between characters. If they sit parallel to each other, their conversation tends to be similarly parallel but not quite converging. If they are at orthogonal angles then that often means that the two characters are at odds with each other.
Great actors work with Hong all the time because they know that they will give the best performances they have ever given. In On the Beach at Night Alone meets his match in Kim Min-hee, who makes this her own film and pushes Hong to expand upon his repertoire by focusing on someone so unlike himself.