With a director as prolific and resolute as Hong Sang-soo, it’s easy to see each film not as a discrete work, but as a piece of an endless whole—a kind of check-in, or the next stop on an artistic trip that’s constantly unfolding. Hong has, if nothing else, been wildly busy: he’s made over ten feature films this decade alone, including one he shot quickly at Cannes during the Cannes Film Festival. Like Yasujiro Ozu or Eric Rohmer, he tends to return to and remix the same settings, themes, and elements over and over—in Hong’s case: young people at a crossroads, gatherings in cozy bars, the allure of film festivals and cinematheques, and the atmosphere of quiet locales where people go to get away. Also like Ozu, his style of drama is subdued; also like Rohmer, he likes to focus on long takes of pure conversation. But his structures can be as tricky as David Lynch’s: any frame of a Hong Sang-soo film would look like casual digital realism, but he’s just as drawn to time-shifts, ambiguous dream states, meta games, sudden touches of the unexplainable, and identities/realities that are liable to split and merge. His are not the most accessible of films, and I can’t imagine his method could sustain itself economically at higher budgets. But Hong doesn’t need much more than a camera, a tripod, a few actors, and a seaside town. In short, he is one of the few directors truly taking advantage of the possibilities of low-budget digital cinema. He shows that the ingredients of a complex film are so simple—there’s no excuse not to use them.
On the Beach at Night Alone is, as of this weekend, Hong’s latest film to open in the United States, perhaps his most difficult, and certainly one of his most private. It’s impossible to grasp the full emotional resonance without knowing that Hong and his leading lady (Kim Min-hee, twenty years his junior) had just had a scandalous extramarital affair, and the film plays out as an on-screen attempt between ex-lovers to understand each other and the transgression they shared. The word “indulgent” tends to get thrown around with annoying ease on the internet, and I suspect many viewers will reach for it here. On the Beach works so obliquely, or through banal moments, that it is most enjoyable in retrospect and probably most meaningful to its own creators and to those willing to extend them patience. (Hong can be funny when he wants to be, which, as it turns out, is not now). But if we’re calling a moratorium on directors and actresses airing their relationships on film, we’d have to toss out some of the best films of von Sternberg, Godard, etc., etc., which would be tragic. So for now, it’s enough to meet Kim Min-hee as a young woman in an affair with a much older married man—a man, we discover, who happens to be a director.
The film is divided in two. In the first half, the affair is still secret and happily aglow, and Young-hee (Kim) is on a trip to Germany but thinking of him from afar. Accompanied by an older divorcee who was once cheated on herself—a metaphorical stand-in for Hong’s wife?—Young-hee talks about how enamored she is, and the two women share their stories and advice. In the second half—signaled by a strange man inexplicably plucking Young-hee off the beach and carrying her away—the affair is over. And Young-hee, now back in South Korea, is utterly adrift. It’s telling that, throughout this section, Young-hee meets several men who scarcely drive the plot, but none of whom come off flatteringly: they are all either invasive or callow. The man who carried her off the beach appears again, now as a window washer; like one of Lynch’s avatars from the strange beyond, he is pregnant with symbolism, like a clue without a mystery. It all culminates in Young-hee meeting her ex-lover over dinner, where the other guests serve as an audience (us?) while she interrogates him and he breaks down.
Hong’s weakest point is, I think, as a writer. Each seemingly banal scene serves a thematic purpose, but Hong lacks Rohmer’s verbal wit and Ozu’s instinct for defining even minor characters so vividly, either of which could make a film like On the Beach at Night Alone as fun to watch as it is to think, talk, and write about. It is in that final confrontation—a conversation between Hong’s literal ex-lover and an avatar for himself—that the film reaches its excoriating peak. It is a naked exorcism, one of the best scenes of the year. And if, by being the most self-referential and intimate part of the film, it is therefore the most “indulgent”, it is also paradoxically the most accessible and dramatic; when it comes to art, the intimacy dragged up by indulgence is something we could use a lot more of.
The challenge of Hong’s films is one of reversal: if most movies are explicitly emotional films that open themselves to academic readings, his are more academic films where emotion is fully unleashed by deconstruction. The ultimate satisfaction of On the Beach is how we’re watching a romantic connection that goes not across the screen, but through the camera—with the heroine’s mindset informing the presence of everyone she meets. The cult of the director reigns supreme in cinephilia, and Hong’s own sneaky presence is felt, as always, with the sudden, enigmatic pans and zooms during scenes so otherwise given over to visual stasis. But Kim shows just how much an actress can grab control of the screen and not let go. In a strange way, it reminds me of the old cartoons where a creation would rebel against its own animator. Only here the battle is a love affair and the creation is a real woman—a woman who won’t be kept in, who commands the sympathy and understanding of the crowd, who will take strides to show just how little she needs men, and who demands her challenges be answered. She holds the film together, just as she can ultimately chose to simply walk out of it, and just as he (by proxy) will step in front of the camera and confess. It is her film as well as his. In its wreckage and weary final peace, it is theirs.