Hong Sang-soo seems to be infallible, and On the Beach at Night Alone — one of the four deeply personal films made in the last year (along with The Day After, Claire’s Camera, and Yourself and Yours) — is his most conceptually audacious, tackling the media circus surrounding he and Kim Min-hee’s affair directly. Not only is his prolificness and consistency in this phase of his career commendable, but his bravery in painting flawed portraits of himself is entirely deserving of respect. In focusing on Kim Min-hee’s character however, he simultaneously manages to skirt the usual ickiness that comes with meta, personal films that attempt to justify misdeeds or pad their films with pseudo-intellect (Hong’s characters speak to us often, commenting on how things are not always as they appear on the surface, but they’re more confessional than they are pompous); the scenes that do seem to directly correlate with the contraversey ooze a sense of shame, which translates into and contributes overall to the overwhelming empathetic nature of his films with ease.
It is a film divided. First into two parts by location: Kim plays actress Younghee, a woman displaced, first in the foreign Hamburg, then back home in Korea. Both segments include their own opening credits, with the brief intermission acting as an ellipses for noticeable growth in Younghee (of which characters persistently comment on: “You look older, more like a woman”), who traverses fragility, and begins to notice inescapable superficiality through introspection. Hong almost alternates between the two — repetitious dialogue and funny but meaningless chit-chat are interrupted by deep, extremely personal, quietly shattering moments. Simultaneously, he interrupts those superficial scenes with faceless men (an awkwardly persistent window washer, a tall figure who stalks her and her friend through the park), whose prescences are hard to discern, as if surrounding Younghee with reminders of her mistake.
Kim embodies the character perfectly, exuding heartbreak but also newfound independence. Every cigarette she smokes is believable. Depite the personalness of the role, she is completly relatable. She balances her tender timidity well with explosions of pent-up emotions that manage to be almost frightening at times — drunk confessions of truths that one shouldn’t talk about. In a script in which most of the dialogue is intentionally meaningless, her character manages to stand out, fully developed by the very end.
As has come to be expected from any Hong Sang-soo film, this is a masterpiece formally. He hardly captures the foreign charm of Hamburg specifically — it is virtually indistinguishable from any othe foreign city — but he certainly does justice to the vast open spaces, the beach especially. His trademark precision wih his camera is on full display, and my heart skipped with every zoom or pan. They are a vital pairing with his trademark sake scenes as well, as crowds of people saying nothing are condensed into duos saying everything and spectators, forced to watch, in rooms that quickly become claustrophobic.