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The Transcendence of Desire

The Complementary Halves of On the Beach at Night Alone

Anzhe Zhang

On the Beach at Night Alone is one of the three features which debuted last year by South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who in recent years, has sprung out of the art house circuit and into the Korean tabloids for rumors surrounding an affair with starring actress Kim Min-hee. It’s a film that’s meta even by Hong’s standards thanks to this real-life inflection, one which bears resemblance to nearly any one of his stories from the past twenty years. Rarely has a director been so consistent—a drinking scene unravels into brutal honesty, a chance meeting masks the underlying regret, and shamelessness sets aflame latent passions—to piece together Hong’s repetitive elements is to visualize a metaphysics of romantic desire, and in that respect, this film is no different. But through Kim’s enigmatic performance and the story’s ambiguous sense of reality, On the Beach at Night Alone takes on a weariness that feels unfamiliarly despondent in its outlook as a Hong film. 

Like 2016’s Right Now, Wrong Then, a halfway puncture separates the plot into two narratives. The complementary halves are unified by Young-hee (a stand-in for Kim) who we first encounter, back turned against the camera, on a winter day in Hamburg. Processing a scandalous affair back home, Young-hee idles away her days smoking Parliaments and taking long walks with her friend, an older Korean woman. It’s by the frozen lakeside and empty parks that the two share heartfelt yet noncommittal conversations, the type which distracts from loneliness but only through its encirclement around that avoidant blank space. Kim carries her character with an ethereal grace and her presence blends into the desaturated, icy backdrop. Wherever she floats, a depleted resignation follows, and the viewer is reminded that her conflict has long been over and we’ve simply been invited to examine the wreckage.

But it’s at the seaside town of Gangneung where Young-hee’s wounds fester once more. The scenery gains lucidity, and in turn, Young-hee also takes on a strikingly confrontational tone to the way she speaks (or rather, confesses) to her friends. As Young-hee’s friend points out, her emotional struggle has brought out a real charm out of her. Yet this mercurial charisma also switches sharply between forcefulness and catatonia, producing an emotional turbulence which lends the second half of the film its moody, raw quality. She is at times smug, other times self-deprecating, but nearly always absent and weighed down by the unspecified events of her affair. It’s a mesmerizing performance by Kim in its layering of conflictive emotions; impressive, given how little we know about the details of her struggle. Yet it also feels highly unnecessary to know given that devastation almost always arrives in a wholesale package.

Perhaps due to its collaborative nature as a co-authored confessional, the film possesses an especially personal air for a Hong feature. The coy dialogue reads as if the director and actor have planted some deeply amusing inside jokes for private enjoyment. But even without this lens, the film differs from Hong’s past features in its uncharacteristic demand for clarity on processing a love that we, as the viewers, did not even witness. Through Kim’s acting, this demand almost takes on an angry desperation. Previous Hong films often accepted the ungovernable ugliness that can arise between two people, yet in an especially bitter and drunken climax, there is the sense that this film does not. Instead, it bitterly drags itself away in dejection.

This dejection is conveyed and scrutinized through Hong’s visual devices. At times, the characters leave a scene and the camera lingers for about five seconds longer than expected, while his infamous zoom-in shots have gained a playful synchronicity with the audience’s expectations. For all its melancholy, the film has its humorous moments too, like when a random passerby sprints up a hill to ask Young-hee for the time, almost belittling the melodrama in the process. But even the humor feels cold. Just as the title suggests, there is a loneliness blanketed over On the Beach at Night Alone, a tone that feels like it’s suggesting romantic providence is merely a prelude to suffering. For Hong, the film is another examination into the relational energy shared between man and woman, though with On the Beach at Night Alone, it feels like a decidedly cruel and sullen inquiry.