First, what On the Beach at Night Alone is not. And because Hong often, though not always, makes films in pairs that profit from their proximity, let’s take Yourself and Yours as the template from which to trace the variations. The newest of his new works is not a particularly labyrinthine construct. Yourself and Yours arguably employed Hong’s loopiest structure in some time, with no intradiegetic scaffolding—a la Hill of Freedom—to guide the narrative’s many double helixes and lacking the log-line neatness of Right Now, Wrong Then’s rewind to be kind backpedaling. Yes, On the Beach at Night Alone redeploys the bifurcation that defined Hong’s biggest hit, but it hardly counted as innovation when he used it there either; Hong has long displayed an affinity for warped mirror halves. And anyways, the chapters that split On the Beach at Night Alone in two are, if taken at face value, drawn more sharply on geographical and temporal lines than metaphysical or meta-fictional divisions (though more on that later).
Yourself and Yours is comedy of remarriage on the balmy backstreets of summertime Seoul, the humidity as palpable as the condensation that spores on iced-coffees and cold beers. On the Beach at Night Alone opens in Hamburg in the dead of winter, the German climate throwing a gray scrim over everything like a pall. Even the frigid nights of The Day He Arrives offered a kind of invitation when restyled in monochrome and flecked with snow. Despite the weather and because Hong’s characters are flâneurs by nature, On the Beach at Night Alone quickly segues into a stroll through the park, yet venturing outside for a walk has never looked less appealing. This will not be a warm film.
In a career that routinely careens into drunkenness, Yourself and Yours stands out as particularly sotted with the hard stuff. The central conflict spins out from rumors surrounding one woman’s drinking habits; the unanswerable question is always whether You-Young Lee’s wide eyes and lilting gait result from intoxication or merely child-like innocence. Kim Min-hee, who anchors On the Beach at Night Alone, is a more inhibited presence, perpetually under the sway of drowsiness and grief. She is, in every sense of the word, a more sober figure. As if to emphasize this sobriety, Hong’s standby social lubricants are conspicuously absent from the early stretches of On the Beach at Night Alone, save for a glass of wine daintily perched in the hand of Cinema Scope editor and noted Hongite, Mark Peranson.
Relative temperance informs the film’s tone, too. When Hong discovered comedy mid-career, it reinvigorated his cinema; the structural conceits central to his art developed an increasing sense of play—Hong himself was having a good time—and dampened the dourness. On the Beach at Night Alone, however, is not playing around.
This brings us to the question that I’ve dodged for as long as I could, because I can’t rightly answer what On the Beach at Night Alone is without addressing the scandal that birthed it. Using Hong’s personal life to dissect his artistic project is an uncomfortable proposition, but one that has tantalized far better critics. Fill your movies with easy to spot analogues for twenty years and even slim biographical details start to look like a skeleton key. Surely all these hound dog artist types who drink too much must stand in for our beloved director! But until recently, what did we know about Hong, really? I’d argue not much. In June 2016, that changed.
Without rehashing all the details, suffice it to say that director Hong, previously an obscure figure despite his cadre of devotees, catapulted into Korean public consciousness when widely circulated gossip columns outed his affair with Kim Min-hee. On the Beach at Night Alone directly repurposes their affair as text. Younghee, played by Kim of course, haunts Hamburg as a means to escape the rumors swirling back home in Korea, which plagued her professional life as an actress. The impetus for the rumors? An affair with her director.
On the Beach at Night Alone opens with Younghee chatting up a Korean friend at least a decade her senior in one of those open air markets so favored by the Germans. The conversation will drift into bad male behavior and Younghee’s lingering feelings for her paramour despite said behavior, but not before the companion drops a strange bit of wiki-trivia regarding Hamburg’s quality of life: it’s reportedly “the number one city where people want to live.” Questions how to live thread throughout the film, Hamburg’s designation as “the best city to live in” just the opening note in what emerges as the most consistent theme and variation in a Hong script.
The aforementioned walk in the park follows and introduces the first small gap in the film’s realism. Crossing over a bridge, Younghee stops suddenly, kneels, and then bows to nothing in particular. This gesture hints at Younghee’s spiritual desolation (it’s something of a religious pose, after all) but it also connects her to the ground, to the earth. Terra firma seems to exert a pull on her. And indeed chapter one ends, post Peranson meal, with Younghee apparently collapsing to the ground again, though Hong elides the moment with a pan to her fellow beach-goers. As the camera swings back moments later, she’s unconscious but implausibly far away, carried off on the shoulders of an unidentified man. I want to “live my own way,” Younghee says just a few scenes earlier. But how, when gravity pulls you down and men haul you where they please?
“Kim Min-hee” appears in white Hangul on a black screen. The star’s delayed credit reinforces what should already be apparent: this is as much her film as it is Hong’s. It also inaugurates the second chapter, which relocates Younghee to South Korea. She’s reintroduced in the next shot, barely awake in an empty movie theater. Did Younghee just see that credit? If so, did the Hamburg sequence play out as a movie before her eyes? Starring the actress who plays her? The lights come up, like a jolt from a dream, and she drifts out of the theater, the question unanswered. Hong has pulled this film-within-a-film trick before, most notably the matryoshka doll shorts that comprise Oki’s Movie, but the suggestion that Younghee is nothing but a passive viewer of her own life rather removes the fun from the ruse.
In Hong’s cinema, winter is for returning. Younghee’s time in Korea brings her back into the orbit of old friends who appear a bit circumspect about her renewed presence in their lives (“I heard rumors about you.”) But as this is the land of soju, reunions call for drinks, and the little green bottles make their belated appearance. The first of Younghee’s blotto outbursts occurs over a classic Hong dinner. Provoked by the assertion that “her emotional struggle changed something inside her,” Younghee lashes out at the men in the room, accusing them of lacking the necessary qualifications to love. She turns to the young woman sitting next to her and asks for a kiss. The collective male reaction to the women’s ensuing make-out sesh is humorous in the Hongian mode, but Younghee is clearly groping for a path forward, a new way to live in old spaces with old friends. “Do you live happily?” she sings to herself.
Sometime later Younghee finds herself on the beach, uh, alone. The ground beckons and she pulls herself down. Hong frames her lying on the sand, back to the camera and the ocean rolling ahead, with the kind of clear contours he rarely favors. Becalmed and weirdly monumental, this image pushes the film towards its final destination.
A film crew materializes just down the beach offering beers and a chance reunion with the director. Hong devises another dinner scene to bring Younghee and her former lover together. A new woman on his arm, the director plays host as his sycophantic students spit cinema theory back and forth. “Personal stories are boring,” says Younghee, cutting to the chase. “But it’s also important how it’s made,” per the students. “Subject isn’t important,” replies the director. Hong is winking here, clearly, but also obfuscating. The subject isn’t just important; for the first time, it’s everything.
The most charged sit-down meal in a filmography filled with them concludes when the director reads a passage from a book selected specially for his guest. Struggling through the words, he preaches to “start from what is highest.” Given his new squeeze shunted into the corner of the frame in quiet humiliation, this life advice rings a bit hollow. He breaks down, Younghee leaves, and suddenly she’s prone on the beach again.
“I was dreaming,” Younghee tells a faceless pair of male legs come to warn her about sleeping near the surf. Propelled to motion by another anonymous man, she gets up and wanders down the solitary strand, an explicit echo of the scene that concludes part one. This time she’s on her own two feet, at least.
Hong and Kim are happy, by all appearances. On the Beach at Night Alone offers them no well-wishes. The artist couple lacerate themselves with this warped mirror film. They enact an alternate reality of separation and solitude that, for the moment, does not exist, but which lies forever in wait, a possible future always threatening the present. And when the future does arrive, the best you can do is wipe the sleep from your eyes, acknowledge that you haven’t figured it all out and that you’re probably unqualified to love anyways, and get moving, alone.