Hong Sangsoo’s On the Beach At Night Alone is in fact two films. Shot by different cinematographers (Kim Hyung-koo and Park Hong-yeol, respectively), the film has two sections, each with its own individual opening credits. In the first, a famous actress, Young-hee (Kim Min-hee, best known in the UK from Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden) has escaped Seoul following a very public affair with a film director. Shot in Hamburg, Germany, the actress seeks refuge at the house of an older friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), who has similarly escaped to Europe following an unhappy marriage. This first section is all about the two women: we see them strolling through a park together, visiting a bookstore, sitting together and talking quietly. At one point, a man attempts to disrupt their comfortable peace to ask the time, but the women stare back in silence blankly until he walks away. Later, he approaches again and the women run away. When they meet Jee-young’s friends, the women are awkwardly silent, escaping to the kitchen to converse in easy Korean: “I just can’t get myself to talk in front of English speakers,” says Jee-young.
A content melancholy hangs over the two women. Despite physically distancing herself from the failed affair, Young-hee is conflicted. She is adamant that she won’t wait for him, but she already is: he is supposedly arriving into the city to meet her later that week. Hong’s stark, pale colour palate captures the urban winter as Young-hee herself is frozen between the two desires of escape and confrontation.
The first section closes at the beach and the second opens with Young-hee back in her homeland of South Korea. She is sitting in a cinema, emotional, after a film has ended – she could well have been watching the first half of On the Beach. Time has passed but we’re not sure how much or whether her and her old lover, only ever referred to as Director, were reconciled in Hamburg. Young-hee bumps into an old friend who invites her to a coffee shop where another of their old friends works. They eat together. They visit her hotel. She goes to the beach. She has a dream. She wakes up. Credits roll.
On the Beach is not about plot or even about action. Instead the film is a portrait of the mourning process that follows lost love. Like the sea, which bookends the film, Young-hee’s emotions come in waves: she is stoic and then angry, upset and then stern, soft and hard. The film’s emotional impact is all down to Kim’s subtle range; she is the beating heart of the film.
When Hong attempts to turn the latter half of the film into an obvious allegory about the director’s own filmmaking process, On the Beach‘s previous emotional nuance threatens to unravel. In a dream sequence, we finally see the Director as he and Young-hee have their emotional confrontation over dinner. The dream sequence appears to exist solely as a point of catharsis for Hong as the Director breaks down over their failed relationship. “Why do you keep so many pretty girls around you?” asks Young-hee, furious. “I’m turning into a monster,” sobs the Director. Given the complicated real-life relationship between Hong and Kim (the director openly admitted to an affair with the actor at the premiere of On the Beach), the scene is a moment of indulgent atonement for the filmmaker and not for Young-hee. However, while the scene threatens to replace the film’s previous quiet and sombre mediation with melodrama, it is saved by Kim. The scene is a confessional but Young-hee retains all power and grace while the Director breaks down.
While Young-hee is the emotional core, much of the film’s charm and muted comedy comes from her interactions with other characters. Food recurs as characters eat and talk together. In the film’s first section, the women act out their friendship by continually asking if the other is hungry or needs to eat. Jee-young heaps pasta onto a plate when Young-hee admits that she was starving. In the second section, old friendships are rekindled over food, as characters bond through its sharing. Homeless and unsettled, people invite Young-hee for food, feeding her physically and symbolically, and, temporarily at least, providing her with a home. Young-hee’s dream confrontation with the Director over dinner ends with her getting up and walking away, leaving him behind. By the end of the film, she is no longer passively receiving food: she has garnered the strength to seek it out alone.