Art and life have overlapped in the cinema many a time, but rarely do they achieve the proximity one finds in Hong Sang-soo’s latest work On the Beach at Night Alone. In response to the obsessive media coverage in South Korea of his affair with actress Kim Min-hee, Hong has crafted a film-confession in the form of a fictional fallout between a married director and a famous actress named Young-hee, brilliantly captured by Min-hee herself.
Hong also alluded to his affair in The Day After (2017), but in that film, he told it from the perspective of the married man. On the Beach at Night Alone offers a refreshing foil to male narcissism by taking us into the mind of the jilted mistress – in this case, a young strong-willed actress who alternates between bouts of melancholy and confrontational outbursts as she struggles to master a maelstrom of emotions.
At the beginning of the film, we find Young-hee staying with a divorced friend in Hamburg in the hopes of clearing her head. Her desired refuge, however, only has her circling back to the profound solitude she felt when her affair with the director was over. At the end of the film’s “Hamburg segment,” she winds up on a local beach that ironically resembles her coastal hometown of Gangneung, South Korea. Her isolation becomes tied to this image of the beach, the camera panning from her group of idly-chatting friends over to her lone figure, as she draws the face of her ex- lover in the sand and looks out at the cold grey waves.
Young-hee’s inability to forget the affair is then cemented as we transition to the film’s second act, which opens with her alone inside a movie theater in Gangneung. It’s as if she, too, experiences the memory of Hamburg as little more than a filmic interlude in her life – a failed, fleeting attempt to escape Gangneung’s web of gossip and her own raw feelings.
The film’s second segment also marks a return to a style that is much more recognizably “Hong Sang-soo.” Plot-wise, it contains little more than a series of elliptical, liquor-inspired conversations between Young-hee and some former acquaintances. But Hong is the maestro of monotony, teasing out the tensions beneath the chatter and giving them free rein to explode at unexpected moments. As Young-hee alternates between self-flagellation and lashing out, she gives us sharp glimpses of the affair’s alienating impact on her friendships. Desperately, she casts about for closure, only to find herself on shakier, more solitary ground.
The confrontation between Young-hee and her ex-lover takes place at the very end and is mired in ambiguity. During a surreal dinner conversation, the director (who undeniably resembles Hong) quietly tells her that his next film will be about their love affair. Incited, she rips into him, declaring that personal stories are “boring and exploitative” and causing him to break into sobs. In this self-reflexive climax, Hong metaphorically strips himself of his defenses as a god-like director, reducing himself to a man shamed and walled in by personal truths.
Seconds later, however, the camera cuts to Young-hee asleep on the beach in Gangneung, as if the jarring evening had been just a dream. In some ways, this feels like Hong’s final trick, his way of slyly sublimating the film’s autobiographical elements. In a deeper sense, Hong and Min-hee seem to foreground the inevitability of solitude when working through personal crises. The film is reminiscent of Persona (1966) in the way it blurs a convalescing actress’s real and imagined encounters, suggesting that what matters most is how she will later understand and piece them together in her mind – when she’s alone.